Henry Meyer / Bloomberg
The latest bid to end five years of war in Syria gathered some momentum as the main opposition group arrived in Geneva for United Nations-sponsored talks, though it refused to lift a threat to boycott the peace process.
The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, whose delegation landed in the Swiss city on Saturday, said it will have its first meeting with Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, on Sunday. The committee reiterated demands for an end to airstrikes by Russia and government forces. “If the regime insists on carrying out these war crimes against civilians, there will no justification for the delegation to remain in Geneva,” the HNC said in a statement on its Facebook page.
The US and European countries welcomed the opposition’s decision to attend the talks, the most serious effort so far to end the conflict after two previous failed peace conferences. The Syrian war, which has killed about 250,000 people, has left Europe facing an escalated threat of terrorist attacks and a growing refugee problem.
De Mistura, who met a delegation sent by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, said the opposition’s participation was the best way to secure their demands, which include prisoner releases and the lifting of sieges of rebel-held Syrian towns.
The opposition delegation’s chief negotiator is Mohammed Alloush, a senior figure in the Army of Islam, said HNC spokesman RiadNassan Agha. Russia considers the radical extremist group supported by Gulf states and Turkey as terrorist.
The peace efforts come as Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, are making progress against IS militants and rebel forces supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations.
The UN-sponsored negotiations, which could run for several months, are being held in a so-called proximity format. This will involve de Mistura shuttling between the government delegation and two opposition factions. The second opposition group is made up of Moscow-friendly figures.
The US on Friday welcomed the decision of the HNC to attend the negotiations. US Secretary of State John Kerry called on both sides to “achieve early, measurable progress in the days ahead,” according to an e-mailed statement.
The conflict has forced millions to flee their homes, provoking the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. It’s also helped the rise of IS, a militant organization with a stronghold in Syria and Iraq that has spread into regional neighbors including Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan, and poses a growing threat further afield. The group claimed responsibility for attacks in 2015 that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt in October with 224 people on board, and killed 130 people in Paris in November.
The US and Russia, which have taken the lead in promoting the Syrian peace process, secured an agreement among major powers in November for a timetable that would see a power- sharing government by mid-2016. Elections would follow a year later after changes to Syria’s constitution. The warring sides must also agree to a nationwide cease-fire, except for offensives that target IS and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
It will be an achievement if the discussion actually gets under way between the government and opposition, although with neither side willing to make concessions, “that doesn’t mean its prospects of success are very high,” said Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.