UN delegate to Syria: shady attempts push for hindering the peace talks

 The UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The 18-day ceasefire is fragile but holding, he says. Photograph: AFP/Getty
The UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The 18-day ceasefire is fragile but holding, he says. Photograph: AFP/Getty

The UN’s Syria envoy has warned that spoilers and provocative rhetoric will be unleashed to derail his efforts to create a roadmap to end the country’s five-year civil war.

Opening the potentially historic Syrian peace talks in Geneva, Staffan de Mistura also said the only alternative to the peace process was a return to even more fighting. “This is the moment of truth,” he said as he reminded all sides of the 1,000 children killed in the civil war in the past year.

The conflict has lasted so long that 3.7 million Syrian children have seen nothing but war, de Mistura said.

“Some referred to a plan B,” he said. “So far as I know the only plan B available is return to war and even worse war than we have now.”

De Mistura’s first session on Monday was with the Syrian government’s negotiating team. Speaking afterwards, Bashar Ja’afari, who heads the government delegation, said talks would be sabotaged if the other side continued to set preconditions, presumed to be a reference to the demand that Bashar-al-Assad steps down as president.

“We want to have an inter-Syrian dialogue that is Syrian-led without foreign intervention and without preconditions,” Ja’afari said.

Ja’afari also said he had submitted a document entitled Basic Elements for a Political Solution and believed its ideas could enrich the diplomatic effort.

An early task for de Mistura is to get the two sides to engage with a political transition process that does not have to settle the issue of the future role of Assad at this stage.

Before the talks, there had been anger on the American side that the Syrian government had ruled out any discussions on the future of Assad. The opposition high negotiations committee (HNC) had on Sunday reiterated that any transitional body must be imbued with all executive powers.

“There will be no role within this body for those who have committed crimes, or for Bashar al-Assad,” said the HNC spokesman, Salem al-Meslet.

De Mistura acknowledged this was the gap he had to bridge: “It is up to the Syrian people to vote, elect and decide. At the end of the day it will be up to them to decide how to run their country,” he said.

Asked about the apparent gulf between government and opposition negotiators on the question of Syria’s political transition, de Mistura said negotiations and peace talks always began with strong or rhetorical statements.

The Syrian opposition’s bargaining hand has been weakened on the battlefield, largely owing to the strong military support given to Assad by Russia, but also as a result of attacks by the al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group not party to the peace talks.

At the opening press conference, de Mistura said the 18-day cessation of hostilities was fragile but, by and large, holding. More besieged areas were being reached, he said.

He suggested the public statements of the two Syrian delegations were “going to be show there is much distance between the sides, and distance indeed does exist”.

He added: “Spoilers are going to try to upset the talks by incidents and by whatever you will be seeing. The secret will be to be cool and determined. Public rhetoric will try to impose preconditions but the role of the UN is to be facilitating, mediating, pushing, stimulating. But the real peacemakers here are the peacemaking powers that wanted these talks, the United Nations security council and the Syrian people, hopefully.”

He said if there was no willingness to negotiate he would refer the issue back to Russia and America, the co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group.

Setting out his tactics to keep the two deeply suspicious sides engaged, he said there would be no face-to-face talks in the opening round of discussions.

De Mistura plans to meet one delegation per day, so will not meet the Syrian government delegation again until Wednesday. The relatively slow initial pace is to give negotiating teams time to discuss the issues with their capitals.

A further two rounds are planned, by which time the UN expects to know if the talks are making substantive progress. The UN has also set up two taskforces, one handling the ceasefire and the other the humanitarian aid, to meet alongside the peace talks. The aim is to ensure that the peace talks remain focused on a political transition without being sidetracked by issues of the ceasefire.

De Mistura added that the aim was for the talks to be as inclusive as possible, a reference to the need to bring the Kurds into the negotiations process. At present, the Syrian Kurds – who control as much as 15% of Syrian territory – are not included in the opposition group under the umbrella of the HNC. “The aim is to include as many as possible either in this round of talks or the next round,” de Mistura said.

In a sign of the role the various sponsoring nations will play on the sidelines of the talks, Russia believes it is important that no side in the Syria peace talks derail negotiations by putting forward unfounded ultimatums.

A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters when asked about Russia’s expectations for the Geneva talks: “Without doubt it is important right now that we have as wide as possible representation, that no sides should derail the negotiations process.

“It is important right now that all the political forces in Syria, all parts of Syrian society, including of course the Kurds, should be represented at the talks. It is important that no one puts forward unfounded ultimatums.”

He added: “We understand it won’t be simple, but of course one hopes that in the end that, taking into account those positive movements which we’ve seen in Syrian affairs since the beginning of the ceasefire, will, in small steps, lead to achieving positive results.”

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