UN mediator expects ‘no breakthrough’ in Syria talks

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Playing down expectations, the UN envoy for Syria said Wednesday he’s not expecting a breakthrough in the first UN-mediated peace talks between government representatives and the opposition in 10 months, rather hoping to build momentum toward peace after nearly six years of war.

Staffan de Mistura spoke a day before convening the two sides amid a recent cease-fire that he said has largely held, and recent battlefield gains by President Bashar Assad’s forces. The envoy warned of unspecified “spoilers” who could try to scuttle his efforts to end a conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead.

“We want to give a chance to the Syrian people, to the Syrian parties, to try to have some type of dialogue” that can lead “beyond just a conflict,” he told reporters in Geneva. De Mistura said he was determined to keep “a very proactive momentum” in the talks, which will focus on new elections, a new constitution and governance.

De Mistura says he’s hewing to goals outlined in a UN Security Council resolution from 2015 that call for a political transition process. But the two sides are still stuck on discussions about ways to consolidate the Dec. 30 cease-fire - which is violated almost daily - and bring humanitarian relief to tens of thousands of people under siege.

“I am not expecting a breakthrough,” de Mistura said. “I am convinced it will be worthwhile. We are going to give it a serious try.”

The opposition delegation was holding closed-door meetings into the evening at a Geneva hotel ahead of Thursday’s start.

Salem Al Meslet, a spokesman for the main opposition faction, said it wants “direct” talks with the government delegation.

“We do not want this round to be like the last one,” he told The Associated Press.

The government envoys “are here just to buy time and commit more crimes in Syria. There is no trust in this regime,” Al Meslet said, “That is why we are really fighting, not only with weapons but with all efforts that we can do, to really finish this crime in Syria.”

The talks follow recent diplomatic efforts by Russia, a key supporter of Assad’s government, and Turkey, which supports the opposition. Those joint efforts led to both the cease-fire and talks between the Syrian sides in Astana, Kazakhstan. Assad’s forces have the upper hand after recapturing full control of the city of Aleppo in December and making key advances around the capital, Damascus.

De Mistura said Russia had indicated earlier at a closed-door UN “cease-fire task force” meeting in Geneva on Wednesday that Russian authorities had asked Assad’s government to “silence their own skies in areas touched by the cease-fire” as the talks proceed.

The envoy said bilateral talks would start Thursday morning, and that it remained to be seen whether the two sides would sit down face-to-face - which didn’t happen in the three previous rounds of failed talks under his guidance last year. He also did not indicate how long he expected the new round to continue.

“I’m not expecting an immediate breakthrough from this negotiation, but the beginning of a series of rounds that will be able to go much more in depth into the substantive issues,” he said.

De Mistura said he hoped to officially welcome the parties Thursday in the presence of representatives of key world and regional powers, “to show that the international community is interested, supportive, united as much as we can hope in order to tell the Syrian sides it’s time to talk and fight on the table, through the table, but not in the field.”

The United States, which has been consumed with political transition to the Trump administration, has been largely sidelined from diplomatic efforts - with Russia and Turkey now leading that initiative. But Michael Ratney, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Syria and the Levant, was in Geneva for the talks, officials said.

“We do have US representatives here, and ... I am convinced that they will be very supportive of whatever we try to do,” de Mistura said, alluding to the Trump transition period. “You need a month for devising a new strategy, and we are waiting for that, like everyone else - we look forward to see what the strategy is.”

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