Syrian peace talks: 'There is no Plan B'

Opening new talks, UN mediator asks to hear from all sides but says he'll call in big powers if talks bog down

GENEVA • Syria faces a moment of truth, United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura said yesterday as he opened the first of three rounds of peace talks envisaged to negotiate a political transition and end in a "clear road map" for a future Syria. The fresh round of talks resumed in Geneva after negotiations broke off last month .

Saying there was no "Plan B" but a return to war, he asked to hear from all sides. He also said he would have no hesitation in calling in the big powers, led by the United States and Russia, if the talks get bogged down.

"If during these talks, and in the next rounds, we will see no notice of any willingness to negotiate... we will bring the issue back to those who have influence, and that is the Russian Federation, the USA... and to the Security Council," he told a news conference.

"The only Plan B available is return to war. To even worse war than we have so far," he said.

Russia urged all opposition factions to be represented at the Syrian peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the country's five-year conflict. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also hinted that an agreement could be reached to coordinate air strikes between the Russian air force and the US-led coalition to retake key rebel towns.

"We are looking at how the delegations participating in this dialogue are being formed both by the government and the opposition," Mr Lavrov said at a news conference after talks with his Tunisian counterpart in Moscow, RIA Novosti state news agency reported.

"It's clear that they should include the whole spectrum of Syrian political forces, otherwise this cannot claim to be a representative forum," Mr Lavrov said, noting that the ceasefire in Syria brokered by Russia and the US last month is generally working.

"The cessation of combat is working, despite certain violations, while at the same time an uncompromising battle is continuing against the Islamic State (in Iraq and Syria) group, Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups."

In an interview broadcast on Sunday on Russia's Ren-TV, he also said Moscow was ready to coordinate with the US to retake the rebel strongholds of Raqqa and Palmyra.

"We are ready to coordinate our actions with the Americans, because Raqqa is in eastern Syria and there, mainly the US coalition is active.

"At some stage the Americans even suggested to us - I don't think I'm revealing a huge secret here - let's divide up the labour: you, the Russian air force, concentrate on liberating Palmyra, and we the American coalition will concentrate on liberating Raqqa."

Hopes for a breakthrough in the Geneva peace talks remain remote with the sides locked in a bitter dispute over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The negotiations, which began on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict, are the latest effort to end the violence that has killed nearly 300,000 people and displaced millions.

Damascus warned that any discussion about removing Mr Assad would be a "red line". US Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault condemned the comment from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem as divisive and provocative.

Mr de Mistura agreed that a new Syrian government was the main obstacle to forging a lasting peace. He told reporters yesterday ahead of the meeting with regime and opposition negotiators that the peace talks needed to focus on political transition.

Experts, however, warn that negotiations will still struggle to achieve a durable peace with the hurdles over Mr Assad's fate and the fractured battlefields where multiple groups compete for dominance. Half of Syria's territory is controlled by ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'Syrian peace talks: 'There is no Plan B''. Print Edition | Subscribe