UN brings Syria talks under one roof, if not into one room

 30 Nov 2017 - 15:01

UN brings Syria talks under one roof, if not into one room
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura arrives prior to a meeting during the UN-led Intra-Syrian talks in Geneva on November 30, 2017. AFP / POOL / Xu Jinquan

By Cecile Mantovani and Issam Abdallah | Reuters

GENEVA: Negotiators for Syria’s combatants arrived at a U.N. complex for peace talks on Thursday amid expectations the rival teams will be encouraged to hold face-to-face discussions, in what would be a small breakthrough in efforts to end the six-year-old war.

One diplomat said U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura was expected to try to bring the two sides together, but it was not clear whether he would succeed.

Previous rounds of talks have gone almost nowhere, with de Mistura shuttling between hotels and meeting different groups separately. But for the first time Syria’s opposition has sent a unified delegation, raising the possibility of direct talks across one table.

After arriving separately at the United Nations complex in Geneva, the two sides were installed in waiting rooms with little risk of meeting by accident, before being called in turn to meet de Mistura. He meets them in two meeting rooms separated by a corridor.

Syrian state TV said the government delegation had arrived at the U.N. “for bilateral talks with de Mistura”, suggesting that chief government negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari was not ready to look his opponents in the eye.

But opposition negotiator Nasr Hariri told Reuters on Wednesday that he was ready for direct talks and was prepared to negotiate with no preconditions.

He said his first words to Ja’afari would be: “I hope despite all of the crimes which have been done in Syria, I hope that the regime can come ready to put the people of Syria first.”

If the two sides do meet, it will not be their first time in the same room. In February, de Mistura infuriated Ja’afari by inviting both sides to a ceremony to inaugurate the talks.

On that occasion, as de Mistura warmly embraced the opposition delegates, whom the government of President Bashar al-Assad regards as terrorists, Ja’afari and his team walked out of the room without turning back.

One Western diplomat predicted fireworks if the two sides sat down to talk at last, almost seven years into Syria’s war, but he said the “sponsor” countries backing the talks - including Russia and the United States - would then force them back to the table, and the pressure would gradually be released.

A European diplomat expected the opposition to be “pragmatic and flexible” but there was little chance of a big breakthrough.

“I think we need baby steps, and we’ve made such little progress in the years gone by, largely because of the regime’s reluctance to engage in this, so to make some small steps now and develop some momentum would be very helpful indeed.”