Pro-Russia opposition joins Syria peace talks

16th March 2016, Comments 0 comments

Peace talks to end the war in Syria intensified Wednesday with the inclusion of a pro-Russian opposition group, as the UN widened efforts to find a political solution to the five-year conflict.

The entry into the Geneva talks of the so-called Moscow Group followed Russia's surprise decision to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, where they had been fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Western governments voiced hopes the move -- which continued Wednesday as more Russian planes pulled out of their air base in Syria -- could boost the talks by pressuring Assad.

In another sign of the conflict changing on the ground, military analysts IHS Jane's said the Islamic State (IS) group has lost 22 percent of the territory it held in both Syria and Iraq at the start of 2015.

Russia has said its five-month bombing campaign in Syria had helped push back the jihadists and analysts say it has allowed Assad's forces to gain ground and cement their hold on key parts of the country.

The pro-Moscow faction set to join the peace talks is tolerated by Damascus and has not insisted on Assad's departure as a condition for creating a transitional government, which is an unequivocal demand of the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC).

It was not immediately clear what impact the inclusion of the pro-Moscow group would have, or whether it was a gesture from UN mediator Staffan de Mistura to Russia following the pullout.

De Mistura has said Russia's action could have a "positive" impact on efforts to end the five-year conflict and that Moscow's announcement on the day negotiations opened was "not a coincidence".

After multiple failed peace efforts, de Mistura has said he sees added "momentum" in the current round of dialogue, which comes as a ceasefire imposed on February 27 remains broadly in place.

His tentative optimism was backed by US Secretary of State John Kerry who heads to Moscow next week to discuss the peace drive.

"We may face the best opportunity that we've had in years to end (the war)," Kerry said Tuesday.

The conflict has killed more than 270,000 people and send millions fleeing, many seeking new lives in Europe where the influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia has created a huge headache for the EU.

- 'More serious stage' -

The Moscow Group includes Syria's former deputy premier Qadri Jamil, who was sacked by Assad in 2013 and is now viewed by Damascus as a moderate opponent.

Group member Fateh Jamous charged the more hardline HNC with imposing "conditions that we consider contradictory to the principle of consensus, including the condition of (Assad's) departure".

His camp was set to meet de Mistura at 1700 GMT Wednesday, the UN said. Jamous told AFP the Moscow Group would submit its ideas for a transitional government.

"Our invitation is proof that the talks have entered a new, more serious stage," he added.

Jamil was in Geneva for an earlier round of talks that collapsed in February but did not meet with de Mistura at the time.

Regime delegation head Bashar al-Jafaari appeared to welcome the arrival of the new opposition faction.

"No one can monopolise the opposition," Jafaari said after meeting with de Mistura, in a reference to the HNC.

He branded HNC lead negotiator Mohammed Alloush a "terrorist" and said he would not meet him directly until Alloush apologised for insisting that the transition must start with Assad's fall or death.

- 'Still complicated' -

The latest spat between rival camps highlights the huge obstacles standing in the way of a peace deal.

"Things are still very complicated," de Mistura's deputy Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy said, while noting "important progress" had been made in the first three days of talks.

Wrangling over delegates has hampered past negotiations, especially the contentious issue of including Syrian Kurdish groups, which control large stretches of northern Syria but have not been invited to Geneva.

Kurdish-led parties meeting in northern Syria Wednesday were expected to declare a new federal system in areas under their control, a move aimed at solidifying their autonomy, but which could complicate efforts to forge a united Syria.

Regime delegation head Jaafari told reporters that it would prove pointless.

"The Syrian Kurds are an important component of the Syrian people... so betting on creating any kind of divisions among the Syrians will be a total failure," he said.

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© 2016 AFP

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