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Syria peace talks open in disarray with opposition groups staying away

By Liz Sly and Karen DeYoung | The Washington Post | Published: January 29, 2016

GENEVA — Peace talks aimed at ending the Syrian war opened in disarray Friday, with the opposition standing firm to a decision not to attend unless steps are taken to deliver food to hungry people in Syria and halt bombardments of civilian areas.

A United Nations statement said the negotiations had formally begun as scheduled and that the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, planned his first meeting with the Syrian government delegation.

But with the opposition still refusing to participate, the prospects looked increasingly grim to move forward with a peace process that had been touted by the Obama administration as a foreign policy priority.

The United States had been pinning hopes on the talks because — for the first time in Syria's nearly five-year crisis 1 the chief sponsors of the rival groups on the battlefield had agreed on a road map for negotiations.

That put the two key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad — Russia and Iran — on the same page as rebel backer Saudi Arabia in a peace bid endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution in December.

The talks snagged even before they began, however, on a range of issues that go to the heart of the complexities in Syria.

Central to the opposition's reluctance to attend is the failure thus far to implement clauses in the U.N. resolution — calling on all parties to "immediately" allow humanitarian agencies access to people living in besieged communities, release political prisoners and halt airstrikes against civilian areas.

Instead, Russian and Syrian government forces have stepped up their attacks on opposition territory, and people have begun starving to death in some of the communities under siege by government forces.

"If the international community doesn't have enough power and will to implement resolutions that already exist, how will they able to push for implementing any agreement that will be reached?" asked Hadi al-Bahra, an opposition spokesman in Istanbul.

The opposition — a range of anti-Assad political and rebel factions — has sought assurances from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that the humanitarian measures in the resolution would be implemented. But Ban declined to offer such assurances, and de Mistura told the opposition it was up to the member states to ensure their implementation, according to Bahra.

In a video message Thursday, de Mistura urged Syrians to press their representatives to attend that Geneva talks. The effort, he said, "cannot fail." But the opposition has already faced intense pressure from Syrian activists and opposition supporters to stay away.

The #DontGoToGeneva has circulated widely on Twitter, in Arabic and English, and hundreds of civil society groups have signed a petition supporting the opposition's decision not to go under the current circumstances.

The United States has expressed mounting frustration.

"We believe that the opportunity that is presented by these talks should be sweetener enough for the HNC to come to the table and talk" without "preconditions," the State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said, referring to the High Negotiating Committee, the group formed to represent the opposition in Geneva.

Reinforcing their reluctance, meanwhile, is a suspicion that the United States has reneged on a commitment to support opposition demands that the negotiations should ultimately lead to Assad's departure from power.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry has denied opposition charges that Washington would settle for Iranian and Russian proposals to create a "unity" government, in which both Assad and the opposition would participate, rather than the transition administration called for in the U.N. resolution and other preparatory documents.

The difference, he indicated, was one of semantics, with Russia backing "what they call a unity government, but everybody else calls a transitional government."

"We support getting a cease-fire, we support getting humanitarian access . . . we've said 100,000 times Assad cannot be part of the long-term future of Syria," Kerry said on Monday. "It's very simple. Nothing has changed."

What has shifted, however, are conditions on the ground. In the weeks since the negotiations were outlined, government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, have made significant progress in retaking key areas of opposition control. The offensives suggest neither Moscow nor Damascus is serious about seeking a peaceful settlement, said Bahra.

"They are expanding their military operations on the ground and using the political process to give the image that they are seeking a political solution while in actuality on the ground they are pushing for a military solution," he said.

Expectations that a peace effort would be fruitful had already been lowered following a decision by the U.N. envoy de Mistura to downgrade their format to "proximity" talks — meaning that even if both parties do show up, they will not meet face to face. Rather, they will gather in separate rooms with U.N. officials shuttling between them, a formula that would make it harder to create meaningful breakthroughs.

That was because Russia, Syria and Iran object to the composition of the opposition negotiating team, which contains representatives of armed rebel groups that they term "terrorists."

DeYoung reported from Washington.

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