U.N. Sets New Date for Syria Peace Talks as Rebels Threaten Boycott

U.N. Sets New Date for Syria Peace Talks as Rebels Threaten Boycott

Peace talks to end the nearly five-year civil war in Syria have been delayed due to a “stalemate” over who will represent the country’s divided opposition, according to the top U.N. envoy who is charged with brokering a settlement.

At a Monday press conference in Geneva, Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, said the long-awaited negotiations are now set to begin Friday. They initially were slated to start Monday but a flurry of last-minute diplomacy — from Istanbul to Riyadh to New York — still seeks to unify the fractured opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In the meantime, prominent Syrian opposition groups such as Alwiyat Seif al-Sham warned anew they will boycott the talks if Damascus balks on new concessions, including the lifting of blockades, ending aerial bombing raids, and releasing prisoners.

Invitations to Friday’s talks will be issued Tuesday, said de Mistura, who stressed the importance of including the broadest possible group of Syrian opposition representatives. Notably, he declined to comment on the names of the individuals who will be invited, suggesting that a key sticking point in opening the peace talks remains unresolved.

“We are hoping this will be the opening of a Geneva success story,” he said, according to reports.

When — or if — the talks begin, they will mark the third major diplomatic effort to end the war since it started in March 2011. Since then, the conflict has killed more than 250,000 people and forced the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The start of negotiations would also vindicate U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s last-minute push to bring the Syrian opposition to the table.

Over the weekend, Kerry traveled to Riyadh and pressed Saudi officials and some of the most prominent Syrian opposition leaders not to boycott the talks if the United Nations invites other rival opposition factions that are backed by Russia and Egypt. Those factions are suspected by Syria’s armed rebels of being too close to Assad’s government to be trusted.

But that isn’t the only sticking point.

The lead negotiator for a broad coalition of Syrian opposition groups known as the High Negotiations Committee told Reuters last weekend it will not attend the talks in Geneva unless Assad’s regime first releases prisoners, stops aerial bombardments, and lifts blockades. After Saturday’s meetings in Riyadh, lead HNC negotiator Mohamad Alloush said Kerry had “come to pressure us to forgo our humanitarian rights … and go to negotiate for them.”

A State Department official on Monday confirmed Kerry was pressuring all sides to drop preconditions for the talks — but said the American diplomat was doing so precisely out of concern for Syria’s humanitarian crisis.

“Nobody is more concerned than Secretary Kerry about the humanitarian conditions in Syria,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more frankly discuss the negotiations. “This isn’t about giving up rights. This is about getting to the table and ending a war, so that human rights and peace can be restored.”

Kerry is “urging all sides to keep the momentum going towards negotiations without preconditions,” the official said.

For the Syrian opposition, the decision over whether or not to attend is a difficult one. The High Negotiations Committee risks losing credibility among Syrian citizens if it budges on demands to stop the bombing raids and release prisoners, said Evan Barrett, deputy director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

Such preconditions “show that they are committed to achieving something for their constituents beleaguered by war,” Barrett told Foreign Policy. “Having made these requests, and being rebuffed, if they still go, they will lose credibility inside Syria and appear to be Western/Gulf stooges who do what their masters say at the end of the day.”

Perhaps anticipating a revolt from the Syrian opposition, de Mistura on Monday predicted “a lot of posturing … a lot of walk-outs and walk-ins” in the days before the negotiations begin.

“You should neither be depressed nor impressed, but it’s likely to happen,” he said. “The important thing is to keep momentum.”

The talks are slated to last six months, de Mistura said, with an opening round stretching for two or three weeks. Diplomats will focus first on establishing a cease-fire and creating safe delivery routes for humanitarian aid, he said. The so-called “proximity talks” would involve the opposition and regime sitting in separate rooms with diplomats sending messages back and forth.

Kerry, speaking to reporters Monday during a short trip to Laos, said there should be more clarity about who’s invited to the talks in the coming days.

“We’re going to have the meeting, and [the talks] are going to start,” he said. “But what we are trying to do is to make absolutely certain that when they start, everyone is clear about roles and what’s happening so you don’t go there and wind up with a question mark or a failure.”

Russia, Syria’s principal backer in the conflict, last week said the talks between Assad’s regime and the opposition would begin before the end of January.

Moscow has been conducting near-daily airstrikes to support Assad and his government in Damascus. Syrian government troops, bolstered by Russian air power, have made fresh gains, overrunning rebel-held cities and towns in the mountains of western Latakia province.

Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/Getty Images