Syria envoy ducks talk of Assad future at UN meet

18th March 2016, Comments 0 comments

Syria's government on Friday said it held "useful" talks with the United Nations envoy on a political solution to the conflict, but stopped short of meeting his call for clear plans on a new government.

The Damascus regime's lead negotiator Bashar al-Jafaari spoke for just over a minute after his meeting with UN mediator Staffan de Mistura and refused to take questions.

Before Friday's meeting, de Mistura voiced the hope he would get "in-depth clarity from the government" about options for political transition.

But in his brief remarks, Jafaari said the meeting focused only on a document Damascus submitted to the UN earlier this week, which laid out "fundamental principles for a political solution to the crisis in Syria".

"The adoption of these principles will pave the way for a serious dialogue ... without any foreign intervention and without pre-conditions," Jafaari said after the meeting.

De Mistura on Thursday praised the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) for offering "substantive" plans for a transition.

But the HNC has made the departure of Assad an unalterable demand, while Damascus has termed any talk of the president's removal "a red line".

- 'Procrastination' -

Efforts to negotiate an end to the violence that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions face huge obstacles.

Acknowledging "large" divides between the two sides late on Thursday, de Mistura said his goal in the coming days was to seek glimpses of common ground.

HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet on Friday questioned the government's commitment.

"We don't see seriousness in the other side, we see procrastination," he told reporters.

"We hope Mr de Mistura will have a solution to stop this procrastination from the regime side."

The UN envoy was to meet with the HNC after his talks with the government.

Aside from the disputes in Geneva, the talks risk further complications from changing facts on the ground.

Syria's Kurds on Thursday declared a federal region across the several provinces they control, in a move aimed at unifying Kurdish territory and boosting autonomy.

Analysts have said the federalism call may have partly been a response to the Kurds being excluded from the current round of talks.

If the talks make progress before pausing on March 24, a second round of negotiations is tentatively scheduled for next month in which Kurdish leaders could possibly be included.

But Thursday's declaration was broadly rejected by those negotiating in Geneva.

De Mistura branded it as possibly "dangerous", while the regime said the move would "encroach on Syria's territorial unity". And the HNC slammed it as "a misadventure (that) is detrimental to the Kurdish cause".

Seventy Syrian rebel factions on Friday posted a statement online to "categorically reject the (Kurdish) declaration."

- Daily bombing raids -

Western governments have voiced hope that the talks could be helped by Russia's surprise decision this week to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, where they had been fighting in support of Assad.

Officials and experts said it could aid negotiations by weakening Assad's position and forcing Damascus to commit to substantive dialogue.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted he could ramp up his military presence in Syria "within several hours" and that his forces would not relent in their battle against jihadists, including those from the Islamic State group and the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front.

The Russian military said Friday that its jets were flying around 25 bombing raids daily to back up a Syria's offensive to recapture the ancient city of Palmyra from IS.

Amid fighting near Palmyra, the jihadists claimed the killing of five Russian troops and several members of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group.

IS seized Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in eastern Syria known as the "Pearl of the Desert", last May, destroying ancient temples and sending shockwaves across the world.

© 2016 AFP

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