Syria peace talks pause without concrete progress
A round of Syria peace talks concluded Thursday with both sides agreeing on some key principles but without making any concrete advances towards a political solution, the UN mediator said.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special envoy for Syria, voiced optimism that the two weeks spent mainly trying to pin down which key principles the warring sides could agree upon would enable them to quickly get down to discussing the thorny issue of political transition when they return to Geneva next month, around April 9.
"Next time, we put the principles aside and we look now (to) the political process," he told reporters, hailing a far more positive atmosphere than during a previous aborted round that collapsed in early February.
There were "no breakdowns, no walkouts", said De Mistura, who has since March 14 been shuttling between the government and opposition delegations in the so-called proximity talks.
The main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) also said Thursday the negotiations over the last two weeks had "laid the basis" for substantive talks next month.
But HNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani warned that any real progress depended on Russia pressuring the government.
"This is a unique moment, a precious moment and we hope Russia will seize this moment and use its leverage," Kodmani said.
"Without this leverage on the regime we have little hope that anything will happen."
US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose government backs the HNC, was in Moscow on Thursday to see if President Vladimir Putin can be persuaded to support an end to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Assad's fate remains a key obstacle, with the government stubbornly insisting any discussion of him leaving is "excluded" and the opposition saying any talk of allowing him to stay is "absolutely unacceptable".
- No coincidence -
De Mistura described the Kerry-Putin meeting as crucial, and "not by coincidence", coming the day the Geneva talks go into recess.
Putin has stood by Assad, and even sent Russian warplanes to fight to protect his regime and strike the extremist Islamic State group, which has seized territory in the east of the country.
But Moscow recently announced a partial withdrawal of its forces from Syria, creating what Washington believes is an opportunity to press for a change of stance on the regime.
A fragile truce that has held since February 27 has meanwhile raised hopes for an end to the five-year Syrian conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
But trying to move the Geneva discussions towards the vital issue of political transition is no easy feat.
In a bid to get the parties on the same page, the mediator said he had presented them with a list of 12 broad principles, including that Syria's sovereignty must be respected and terrorism must be rejected, which they had agreed on.
As for the next round of talks in Geneva, De Mistura acknowledged the start date remained fluid, but that he aimed to resume around April 9.
He thus disregarded a regime request that negotiations not resume until after parliamentary elections set for April 13, but stressed that delegates who preferred to show up in mid-April were also "warmly welcome".
"One of the great things about proximity talks is that they are dramatically flexible," he said, highlighting that with indirect negotiations, participants can arrive at different times.
© 2016 AFP