‘No miracles’ in Geneva talks as Syria fighting rages

A fifth round of UN-backed Syria talks is under way in Geneva amid low expectations as violence on the ground escalates.

United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura has warned not to expect “miracles” as a new round of UN-backed talks between rival sides in Syria’s conflict resumed amid ongoing fighting across the country.

As rebel fighters in Syria pushed on with a major offensive against government forces in the central province of Hama, representatives of the two sides in the talks held in Geneva traded allegations over developments on the ground.

Syrian government envoy Bashar al-Jaafari accused the opposition of intentionally undermining the talks, saying an escalation of attacks over the past few days is “pushing everybody toward a total failure and fiasco in the political and diplomatic process”.

For his part, Nasr al-Hariri, the Syrian opposition’s chief negotiator in the talks, accused the government of targeting areas with civilians and carrying out arbitrary arrests.

On the agenda for the fifth round of the Geneva talks is governance – political transition, the constitution and elections – as well as counterterrorism at the request of Damascus.

Deadlock remains over most of the toughest issues, notably President Bashar al-Assad’s fate, with the opposition insisting he cede power and the government declaring the subject off limits.

After a two-hour meeting with de Mistura, Jaafari said “terrorism” needed to be the priority.

In the opposite camp, Hariri said the opposition was committed to finding a political solution, but insisted such a deal could not include Assad.

“We reaffirm that we here to rid our country from terrorism and I say that Syria will not be free from terrorism of Daesh [ISIL] … unless it is liberated first from the state terrorism practised by the regime,” Hariri told reporters.

The two sides are meeting separately with the UN.

“All of them have to talk about all four [issues]”, de Mistura told reporters following the first full day of the round. “That is [the] deal.”

De Mistura said he would aim to mesh the ideas shared on all subjects by both sides when the round ends next Friday.

“I am not expecting miracles, I am not expecting breakthroughs … and I am not expecting breakdowns,” the UN envoy said, reiterating that agreement on the agenda was itself a mark of progress.

De Mistura has recently been shuttling between Moscow, Riyadh, and Ankara, and talking directly with the United States, in preparation for the talks.

He urged the backers of separate talks in the Kazakh capital Astana – which involve Russia and Turkey and are supposed to guarantee a ceasefire – to resume more negotiations in an effort to bring the fighting to an end.

“Our expectation and strong suggestion to the guarantors to the Astana process that they do retake the situation in hand and that hopefully there will be new Astana meeting as soon as possible in order to control the situation, which at the moment is worrisome,” he told reporters.

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