UN: ‘Substantive’ Syria peace talks to begin within days

The U.N. envoy for Syria will begin holding "substantive" peace talks with both Syrian government officials and opposition representatives no later than next Monday even as preparations toward the discussions get underway this week in Geneva, a spokeswoman for the envoy said Tuesday.

GENEVA — The U.N. envoy for Syria will begin holding “substantive” peace talks with both Syrian government officials and opposition representatives no later than next Monday even as preparations toward the discussions get underway this week in Geneva, a spokeswoman for the envoy said Tuesday.

The resumption of Syria peace talks has been expected ever since a U.S.-Russia-engineered cease-fire, which has sharply reduced bloodshed in the five-year war, took effect on Feb. 27. The truce — though limited and tentative — has mostly held, even as sporadic violence has continued.

Staffan de Mistura was still planning for the talks to officially start Wednesday, but logistics and other issues have meant that delegations are likely to arrive in Geneva over several days, spokeswoman Jessy Chahine said. Meanwhile, the U.N. envoy is to convene Wednesday two separate panels aimed at monitoring the truce and pushing for humanitarian aid shipments.

The three-track diplomatic push has become the most promising, if distant, hope in years to end a war that has cost over 250,000 lives, driven 11 million people from their homes, and given an opening to radical groups like the Islamic State and Syria’s al-Qaida branch, the Nusra Front, to seize land. Those groups have been excluded from the diplomatic efforts.

Opposition leaders have set conditions before they agree to rejoin the peace talks, and it is not yet certain whether they would indeed attend. However, some members of the High Negotiations Committee, a Saudi-backed group of opposition movements, were set to attend the “cessation of hostilities” task force meeting on Wednesday.

De Mistura “will start substantive meetings with those who are in Geneva,” by March 14 at the latest, Chahine told reporters. She said the peace talks would resume “in a staggered and proximity system,” meaning that they are to take place in various phases and not face-to-face, at least initially.

While the cease-fire has significantly reduced the violence, reports of sporadic fighting continued.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said fighting killed more civilians in the past two days than in the previous eight days combined. It said 80 civilians died in fighting in cease-fire areas since the truce took effect 10 days ago — more than half of them in the past two days.

Separately, the official Syrian news agency SANA said government forces repelled an assault on a strategic position south of the contested city of Aleppo. The Observatory said Nusra Front fighters led the assault on Al-Eis hill on Monday night, but did not capture it.

A mayor of a Turkish city near the Syrian border said at least three rockets fired from Syria landed on the Turkish side of the border Tuesday, killing one person and wounding another. Kilis’ Mayor Hasan Kara said one rocket hit a populated neighbourhood, causing casualties and panic, and two other rockets exploded on an empty patch of land.

It was not immediately clear who fired the rockets or whether Turkey’s military — which has been retaliating to any rockets or shells fired from Syria into Turkey — had fired back in response.

The first and previous round of talks convened by de Mistura collapsed within days in early February over a Russian-backed government offensive near the Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Russia has supported Assad with a military campaign involving blistering air power.

The cease-fire has been shepherded by Russia and the United States through the International Syria Support Group, a group of world and regional powers and organizations that includes several Western powers as well as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A French diplomat said Tuesday that the Syrian opposition was still debating involvement in new talks, and will give its answer in the coming days. He said the conditions are only partially met to resume negotiations, saying there is a lot of progress yet to be made.

The diplomat, who was not authorized to be publicly named, warned against holding talks too hastily, or holding them if the opposition is not ready to join, saying that could be counter-productive. He said talks should only resume if they are credible, and said participants should understand the opposition’s concerns about holding talks while they’re being bombed.

The official said Russian bombing had decreased since the cease-fire began, and went down sharply over the last two days, but that Assad’s forces were still bombing this week.

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