Syria peace talks get off to shaky start

Bassem Mroue
Associated Press

Geneva – — Peace talks aimed at ending Syria’s five-year civil war got off to a shaky and chaotic start Friday, with the main opposition group at first boycotting the session, then later agreeing to meet with U.N. officials — while still insisting it would not negotiate.

That small commitment by the group known as the Higher Negotiating Committee came just minutes before U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura met with a delegation representing the government of President Bashar Assad.

The developments gave a glimmer of hope that peace efforts in Syria might actually get off the ground for the first time since two earlier rounds of negotiations collapsed in 2014.

The conflict has killed at least 250,000 people, forced millions to flee the country, and given an opening to the Islamic State group to capture territory in Syria and Iraq. It has drawn in U.S. and Russia, as well as regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The HNC, a Saudi-backed bloc, had previously said it would not participate in the U.N.-sponsored talks without an end to the bombardment of civilians by Russian and Syrian forces, a lifting of blockades in rebel-held areas and the release of detainees.

An HNC statement said the opposition decided to take part in the talks after receiving assurances from friendly countries about those humanitarian issues, and that a delegation headed by HNC chief Riad Hijab will leave Saudi Arabia for Geneva on Saturday.

Only once the conditions are met will the delegation negotiate, the statement added.

“We have decided to participate in a political process to test the seriousness of the other side through talks with the United Nations team about the implementation of international and humanitarian commitment as an introduction to the negotiations process and to move toward forming a transitional governing council with full executive powers,” the statement said.

De Mistura said he had “good reason to believe” the HNC would join the talks Sunday but refused to react formally until he got an official notice from its leadership.

“As you can imagine, I have been hearing rumors and information already,” de Mistura told reporters after meeting with the delegation led by Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari.

“What I will react to — that’s why I said I have reasons to believe — I will only react when I get a formal indication of that,” de Mistura said, “But that is a good signal.”