US, France warn Syria regime as peace talks set to begin
Syria's warring sides gathered in Geneva Sunday for UN-brokered peace talks, as the United States and France warned the Damascus regime against trying to disrupt efforts to end the bloody civil war.
United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura met representatives of both delegations for "informal meetings" ahead of the negotiations, due to begin on Monday.
The long-awaited talks will open on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of Syria's civil war, in the latest bid to end the bloodshed that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions.
But disagreements over the agenda have already cast a shadow over the negotiations, and on Sunday Western powers hit out at the regime for saying that removing President Bashar al-Assad would be a "red line" in the talks.
Damascus and the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main opposition umbrella group, have already clashed over what the talks will cover and hours before they were due to start the agenda was still up in the air.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the remarks from his Syrian counterpart were "clearly trying to disrupt the process... (and) clearly trying to send a message of deterrence to others".
Speaking in Paris after meeting with his European allies, he also warned Damascus and its allies Russia and Iran against "testing boundaries" or destroying a fragile ceasefire that began on February 27.
"This is a moment of truth, a moment where all of us have to be responsible," he said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault went further, calling Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem's comments a "provocation" and a "bad sign" in the peace efforts for Syria.
"There will be no political process if the opposition is not closely involved and confident," he added, calling on all the players in Syria's war to ensure "the peace process is sincere and real steps are taken".
- Russia, US to 'shape settlement' -
While analysts say much has changed since the last round of indirect talks collapsed in February, Assad's fate and whether elections will be held within 18 months remain huge obstacles.
Experts have already cast doubt on whether the talks will get off the ground and, if they do, whether any agreement will be able to take hold on the fractured battlefields where multiple groups are competing for dominance.
Bassel Salloukh, political science professor at the Lebanese American University of Beirut, said the current talks were more of a forum for international powers involved in the conflict.
"The strategic interests of Russia and the US will determine the shape of the settlement in Syria rather than the aspirations of its peoples," he said.
Iran and Russia have been supporting Syria's regime with weapons and airstrikes, while the US, Europe, as well as Tehran's regional rival Saudi Arabia, have been backing the opposition.
Their leverage over warring parties in Syria has its limits, however, as half of Syrian territory is controlled by jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) group or Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
These groups have not been covered by the temporary ceasefire, which has also been strained by accusations of violations by the regime and rebels.
- No agenda -
Still, the lull in violence has given enough breathing space for the stalled peace process to re-start.
Kerry said it has reduced violence by up to 90 percent, allowed emergency supplies to reach some 150,000 civilians in besieged areas and meant the US-coalition has pushed IS out of 20 percent of its territory in Syria.
But he warned the conflict will rage on without concrete action, saying: "We will be back here next year, or even the year after next, facing a Middle East with even more refugees, even greater numbers of dead and displaced, even more suffering."
He also urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring Damascus into line, saying he should be concerned that Assad was trying to "to take off the table something that president Putin and Iran had committed to".
Syrian government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari said on Sunday the regime had held positive discussions with de Mistura, but no agenda had been decided for the talks.
"We do not know what issues we will address or the agenda, which we still have not agreed on," he told media in Geneva.
The opposition HNC Sunday pledged to stick with the negotiations, but reiterated that Assad could not be part of Syria's political future and that any transitional body must be imbued with all executive powers.
"We have come to discuss a political solution seeking to end the suffering of the Syrian people and we hope that the other party will be as serious as us," said HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet.
"There will be no role within this body for those who have committed crimes or for Bashar al-Assad."
© 2016 AFP