Assad's team arrives in Geneva for talks

Rebel fighters of al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front) in Aleppo, Syria. The conflict has resulted in the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
Rebel fighters of al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front) in Aleppo, Syria. The conflict has resulted in the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. PHOTO: REUTERS

But doubts remain over main opposition group's participation in peace negotiations

GENEVA • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's delegation arrived in Geneva yesterday for talks to end five years of war, as the United Nations (UN) vowed to press ahead with the peace effort amid continued doubts as to whether the main opposition group will take part.

The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura, will start by meeting the Syrian government's negotiators led by the country's ambassador to the world body, Dr Bashar al-Jafari.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova confirmed at a regular briefing in Moscow that Mr Assad's team is in the Swiss city, adding that Russia hoped the talks marked a "turning point".

"Five years of this conflict have been too much," Mr de Mistura said in a video message to the Syrian people released on Thursday.

"The horror is in front of everyone's eyes."

The Syrian war has left Europe facing an escalated threat from militant attacks and a growing refugee problem.

The UN-sponsored negotiations - which have been held up by disagreement over who should represent Mr Assad's opponents, and by rebel demands for an immediate cessation of hostilities - are envisaged as stretching over several months.

On the eve of talks, the Saudi-backed opposition, including major armed rebel factions, had not committed to participating, though Dr Khawla Mattar, a spokesman for Mr de Mistura, said the UN expects the group to decide whether to attend later yesterday.

The UN special envoy would hold "proximity talks" with the participants, beginning with the Syrian government delegation. He is due to meet a separate, Moscow-friendly opposition delegation today.

The peace efforts come as Mr Assad's forces, backed by Russian air power, are making progress against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as the rebel forces supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations.

The conflict has killed more than a quarter of a million people and forced millions of others to flee their homes, resulting in the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

The United States 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 the middle of this year. Elections would follow a year later after changes to the Constitution. The warring sides must also agree to a nationwide ceasefire, except for offensives that target ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Assad's team arrives in Geneva for talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe