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UN envoy to press Syrian regime as peace talks ‘go deeper’

The UN envoy for Syria was set Tuesday to press President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to ease the suffering of ordinary Syrians after declaring the official start of indirect peace talks with the opposition in Geneva.

Staffan de Mistura said that on Monday the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) had made the “very strong point” that parallel to any talks, the Syrian people “deserve to hear and see facts on the ground”.

“When I meet the Syrian people they tell me don’t just have a conference, have also something that we can see and touch while you are meeting in Geneva,” de Mistura told reporters late Monday.

In particular, the HNC is pressing for humanitarian access to be allowed through to besieged towns, for the bombardment of civilians to cease and for prisoners, many of them women and children, to be freed.

De Mistura was due to meet representatives from Assad’s government on Tuesday morning and the HNC in the afternoon “to go deeper into the issues”.

His declaration that the hoped-for six months of indirect negotiations on ending the almost five-year-old war had begun followed his first official talks with the HNC.

The Swedish-Italian diplomat said he expected the talks to be “complicated and difficult” but that he hoped the negotiations would “achieve something” by February 11.

But the HNC, while welcoming “positive messages” from de Mistura, said that they were awaiting the outcome of the envoy’s talks Tuesday with Syrian government envoy Bashar al-Jaafari.

“I believe we received positive messages from the special envoy. Tomorrow (Tuesday) he will have meetings with (the) regime side and we will wait for a reply from him,” HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet told reporters Monday.

In an apparent gesture of goodwill for the talks, Syria’s government agreed on Monday “in principle” to allow aid into three besieged towns in Syria, including starvation-struck Madaya, the UN said.

– Five years of bloodshed –

The highly complex Syrian war has killed more than 260,000 people and forced millions — half of Syria’s population — to flee their homes, internally or abroad.

The war has sucked in, on opposing sides, not only other countries in the region like Turkey and the Gulf states but also Western nations and, since September, Russia.

The chaos has allowed the Islamic State extremist group — which has claimed responsibility for atrocities worldwide including in Paris in November — to overrun swathes of Syria and Iraq.

On Sunday, the extremist Sunni group said it was a behind multiple bombings at a revered Shiite shrine south of Damascus that monitors said killed more than 70 people.

Foreign ministers from around 20 countries including US Secretary of State John Kerry were due Tuesday in Rome to discuss efforts to combat IS.

In November, world powers agreed in Vienna on an ambitious roadmap that foresees the six months of intra-Syrian talks leading to a new constitution and free elections within 18 months.

But they did not address the thorny issue of the future of Iran and Russia’s ally Assad, whose forces since late September have made progress on the ground thanks to Moscow’s military involvement.

– ‘Not serious’ –

Whether the government’s response to de Mistura will be positive remains to be seen, with Jaafari on Sunday having denounced the HNC as “not serious”.

In particular, Damascus objects to the inclusion in the HNC — backed by Washington and in particular by Iran’s arch rival Saudi Arabia — of rebels whom it sees as “terrorists”.

One of these, the HNC’s chief negotiator, is Mohammed Alloush from the powerful Islamist armed rebel group Army of Islam, or Jaish al-Islam, who arrived in Geneva late Monday.

“We came to find a solution,” Alloush said after arriving, adding however: “There is no common ground with the regime. The regime wants to eliminate the opposition.”

“Assad is the one who is the terrorist,” he said.

Outside powers were also in Geneva keeping a close eye on proceedings, with Jaafari reportedly meeting with the Russian ambassador and Western envoys touching base with the opposition.

A US official said that Anne Patterson, US assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, had met on Monday in Geneva with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov.

Patterson “urged Russia to use its influence with the Assad regime to push for full humanitarian access to all Syrians in need,” the official said.