UN declares official start of Syria peace talks
 By Fatih Erel

The Syria peace talks were officially declared underway Monday as UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura met Syrian opposition delegates in Geneva.

“Their arrival to the UN office at Geneva and initiating discussion with us is the official beginning of Syria talks,” de Mistura said.

The envoy met opposition figures for two hours after a week-long delay to the conference.

The opposition will await a response from the Syrian government on humanitarian steps before starting negotiations with the regime’s delegation. De Mistura said the opposition deserved to see a reduction in violence, the release of detainees and aid arriving in besieged towns.

He is due to meet the government side Tuesday morning, followed by discussions with the opposition, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), in the afternoon.

The HNC has been waiting for the regime delegation to address humanitarian issues in Syria, spokesman Salim al-Muslet said Monday after the opposition’s meeting with de Mistura.

“I believe we received very positive messages from the special envoy and tomorrow he will have a meeting with the regime side and we will wait for a reply from him,” al-Muslet said.

He also urged Russia to end airstrikes in Syria.

“We have come to Geneva to seek relief for our people by insisting UN Security Council Resolution 2254 is implemented, which means humanitarian relief, the lifting of sieges,and the end of attacks on civilians,” al-Muslet said in a statement.

“We have received reassurances from our friends in the international community and have had a positive response from UN special envoy de Mistura. We are intensifying our efforts to ensure that action is taken to end the suffering in Syria.”

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, the head of the government delegation, Bashar al-Jaafari, indicated the regime would be open to discussing opening humanitarian corridors, agreeing a cease-fire and releasing prisoners before talks.

No preconditions

However, Jaafari said Syria would “not accept any preconditions” with opposition groups ahead of negotiations.

“We have not started the indirect talks,” he said. “We do not know who will be sitting with us on the other side.”

Turkey does not want the Democratic Union Party (PYD) -- the Syrian affiliate of the PKK terrorist group -- to be present at the talks although the U.S. considers the PYD a partner in fighting Daesh.

Russia, a strong ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, wants the PYD to attend.

Opposition officials told Anadolu Agency on Sunday that de Mistura had threatened to declare the end of negotiations the following day if they failed to attend the UN-brokered talks.

A spokesperson for de Mistura's office, Khawla Mattar, declined to comment, only saying that Sunday's encounter was unofficial.

The opposition wants UN Security Council Resolution 2254 to be fully implemented by all parties. The resolution is a road map for peace in Syria that sets timetables for negotiations and outlines a nationwide cease-fire to begin as soon as initial steps toward a political transition are made.

The Geneva conference will focus on setting up an interim government, forming a constitution and staging elections within two years.

The initial priorities are to establish a ceasefire, supply humanitarian aid and tackle Daesh.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry's Middle East Director General Can Dizdar will be in Geneva to follow the negotiations.

The Syria conflict began in 2011 and has led to the deaths of more than 250,000 victims and displaced 10 million others, according to the UN.
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