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Main Syrian opposition to join Geneva peace talks

Syria’s largest mainstream opposition group has decided to attend UN-brokered peace talks in Switzerland, a senior delegate said Friday, reversing threats to boycott negotiations aimed at ending the tangled civil war.

He told AFP that the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) will send “about 30, 35 people” in all to the Geneva talks which got under way on Friday in the biggest push yet to end the war.

In a separate statement on Twitter, however, the HNC stressed that the group would be in Geneva “to participate in discussions with the @UN, not for negotiations.”

Earlier on Friday, representatives from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad arrived for their first meeting with UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura.

The 16-member delegation met with the UN mediator for nearly three hours, and left the UN’s headquarters without speaking to media.

De Mistura said his preliminary talks with the HNC could happen on either Saturday or Sunday, telling reporters they would have “some work… certainly on Monday”.

The HNC’s announcement came after four days of talks in Riyadh that saw the alliance refuse to show up before receiving “assurances” from the United Nations on several points.

It demanded an end to bombardments of civilians as well as an agreement on humanitarian aid for hundreds of thousands of people stuck in besieged towns in Syria.

And it asked for “clarifications” after the UN issued invitations to a list of other opposition figure who are thought to have closer ties to Moscow and have limited influence on the ground.

– Arriving late Saturday? –

The HNC and its Saudi and Turkish backers have also objected to the participation of Syrian Kurdish groups that have made key advances against Islamic State (IS) extremists in northern Syria in recent months.

On Friday, Asaad al-Zoabi, head of the HNC delegation, told Sky News Arabia that the opposition had received the guarantees it sought for an end to bombardment of civilians and aid access to besieged areas.

Those guarantees came from Washington and Saudi Arabia, Zoabi said, adding the delegation would arrive Saturday evening or Sunday morning.

The HNC did not announce the names of the nearly three dozen representatives it would send to Geneva, but it had earlier said that a future delegation would include women and members of religious minorities.

In a controversial move, the alliance had named Mohammed Alloush, member of the Army of Islam rebel group, as its chief negotiator.

Formed in December, the HNC is the largest alliance of mainstream opposition groups in Syria.

– Indirect ‘proximity talks’ –

Backed by all the external powers embroiled in the war, the talks are the biggest push yet to end a conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people and fuelled the meteoric rise of the extremist Islamic State (IS) group.

The highly-complex conflict, which has been raging for almost five years, has also destabilised the already restive Middle East and drawn in not only regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey but also the United States and Russia.

It has also forced millions of Syrians from their homes, many of them into neighbouring states and further afield, causing a major political headache for the European Union which received more than one million migrants in 2015.

The negotiations would not be face-to-face between the regime and its opponents. Instead they are “proximity talks” where go-betweens shuttle between the different participants.

They are part of an ambitious plan launched in Vienna in November by a raft of key actors including Russia, the United States, Gulf states, Iran and Turkey that foresees elections within 18 months.

Russia, however, which has helped Assad’s regime make inroads against rebels with air strikes since September, says Kurdish involvement is essential.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose Shiite country also backs Assad and is at daggers drawn with Sunni regional rival Saudi Arabia, said during a visit to Paris on Thursday that he hoped the process would be successful.

“But I would be surprised if they succeed very quickly because in Syria there are groups who are at war with the central government and also amongst themselves,” French media quoted him as saying.