UN Syria envoy tests waters with opposition over Assad fate

Just a few days into the new round, the negotiations appear more fragile than ever with increased fighting near Aleppo

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The United Nation’s envoy to Syria sounded out the opposition at talks in Geneva on the idea that President Bashar al-Assad could stay on in power symbolically, two opposition sources said on Saturday, but they both had summarily dismissed it.

UN mediator Staffan de Mistura reconvened indirect talks on Wednesday saying a political transition would be the main focus of the current round of the peace talks, which aim to end Syria’s five-year-old war. More than 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Just a few days into the new round, the negotiations appear more fragile than ever with increased fighting near Aleppo threatening to undermine a shaky truce. The government delegation after arriving on Friday also sought to steer the new round away from discussion of a transition.

Two opposition sources said that in a meeting late on Friday with the High Negotiations Committee de Mistura had brought up an idea, among others, that would see Assad remain in power symbolically. In return the opposition would choose three vice-presidents, who would be handed military and executive powers.

“There were no details and it’s not something that we are taking seriously,” said one opposition official.

The opposition sources said de Mistura had not presented the idea as something he was specifically proposing.

The mere suggestion of Assad staying in power is likely to further complicate talks with both sides already trading barbs and the situation on the ground worsening.

Syrian government air strikes in rebel-held areas north of the city of Homs have taken place over the last few days coupled with a surge in fighting in Aleppo that was already starting to challenge a fragile cessation of hostilities deal agreed in February between the United States and Russia.

A senior Western diplomat close to the talks said that while the idea was unlikely to be de Mistura’s personal view, it was seemed clumsy given the sensitivity of the subject.

“If this story continues to spread and is not denied quickly it has the potential to cause real problems,” said the diplomat. “It’s having a catastrophic effect in Aleppo, where the fighters are already wary of de Mistura and fear a deal is being struck behind the scenes.”

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