WASHINGTON – Warring sides in Syria’s civil war received invitations to negotiate this week in Geneva, after fits and starts to the process, the UN announced on Tuesday.
Talks to end the five-year-old war are consistent with a diplomatic framework agreed upon in Vienna by world powers in October, calling for a negotiated cease-fire, a political transition and national elections. That framework was brokered by state benefactors of embattled President Bashar Assad and those fighting for his ouster – not, directly, by the parties to the fight themselves.
Indeed, the talks scheduled to begin on Friday will still not involve direct engagement – and the UN’s special envoy to the conflict, Staffan de Mistura, did not specify who was invited to represent Syria’s rebel groups.
“We will be holding those proximity talks until we can hold direct talks,” de Mistura said, adding that the “creative,” adaptive diplomatic approach might last for several months, to keep the process alive.
Factions of the rebel cause have presented different preconditions to their participation, with some groups demanding Russia end its massive bombing campaign waged on behalf of Assad. That assault continued through the weekend, with Assad regime progress reported in the government stronghold of Latakia, even as Russian officials encouraged the start of negotiations.
Announcing the talks, a UN statement simply read that de Mistura “has addressed invitations to the Syrian participants today, 26 January 2016, in accordance with the parameters outlined in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).” The resolution, passed in December, amounts to a road-map for peace talks endorsed by the international community.
“The intra-Syrian talks,” the statement said, “will start as of 29 January 2016.”
Opposition official Asaad al-Zoubi told Arabic news channel Al-Hadath that he was pessimistic, but the final decision would be taken at an opposition meeting in Riyadh.
Turkey will boycott Syrian peace talks planned for this week if the Kurdish opposition Democratic Union Party (PYD) is invited as part of the negotiating team, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.
The PYD, which is fighting Islamic State and has enjoyed military support from the United States, is a terrorist organization and has no place with the opposition at the negotiating table, Cavusoglu said.
The Syrian government, which is clawing back territory from the rebels with the help of Russian air strikes and Iranian ground forces, has already said it will attend.
The opposition, however, comprising the recently formed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), has repeatedly said the government and its allies must halt bombardments and lift blockades of besieged areas before it will join talks.
Zoubi, who is due to head the opposition delegation, told Reuters that without the implementation of goodwill steps, including the release of detainees, “there will be no negotiations. This is what the HNC has laid down,” he said.
Reflecting opposition misgivings about the process, he told Al-Hadath that US Secretary of State John Kerry had tabled Iranian and Russian ideas about Syria at a recent meeting with opposition leader Riad Hijab.
“It is not comfortable for us – even in theory or partially – for America to adopt what came in the Iranian and Russian initiatives,” Zoubi said.
He also heaped criticism on de Mistura, saying the UN Syria envoy “cannot impose conditions” on the opposition.
US special envoy for Syria, Michael Ratney, urged the opposition to attend the talks.
“Our advice to the Syrian opposition is to take advantage of this opportunity to put the intentions of the regime to the test, and to expose, in front of international public opinion, which parties are serious about reaching a political settlement in Syria and which are not,” he said.
A Western diplomat said the aim was to get the talks started without further delay.
“There is a little bit of fear that if the talks don’t start soon they will never really get going.”
The US has supported the opposition to Assad, who it says has lost legitimacy and must leave power. But the opposition has been increasingly critical of US policy. Hijab said earlier this month that the US had backtracked on its position over Syria, softening its stance to accommodate Russia.
Russia has sought to expand the opposition delegation to include a powerful Kurdish faction that controls wide areas of northern Syria. The Sunni Arab opposition says the Kurdish PYD party should be part of the government delegation.Reuters contributed to this report.