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U.N. envoy says Syria peace talks will start Friday; U.S. denies threat to pull rebel support

By Doug G. Ware   |   Jan. 25, 2016 at 3:42 PM
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GENEVA, Switzerland, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- The next attempt at convening talks and targeting a solution to the civil war that has dragged on in Syria for nearly five years will start Friday, the United Nations' special envoy to the crisis said Monday.

Staffan de Mistura told reporters Monday that he would send out invitations to the peace talks, which will be held in Geneva, this week. However, he did not specify exactly who will be extended the opportunity to negotiate.

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The talks were supposed to begin Monday, but disagreements over certain issues and other logistical delays pushed the start date back a few days, de Mistura said.

When they begin, the talks will be the third brokered by the U.N. between Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime and rebel factions. However, the envoy indicated that the new talks will not be a repeat of the prior two rounds, in 2012 and 2014, which largely failed in every regard.

De Mistura, a U.N. diplomat since 1971, said he expects the new round of talks to be contentious -- but believes they can succeed where others have failed.

"This is not Geneva III," de Mistura said Monday. "This is leading to what we hope will be a Geneva success story if we are able to push it forward."

"There will be a lot of posturing, we know that, a lot of walkouts and walk-ins because a bomb has fallen or someone has done an attack," he continued. "It's likely to happen. The important thing is that we keep the momentum. The name of the game is to be as creative and flexible as possible."

One of the biggest questions has been who will be allowed to represent the numerous opposing factions, which has been the primary reason for delays in talks so far. Many rebel groups have expressed a desire to participate in the talks, some with conditions, but it's impossible for them all to have a seat at the table.

The Saudi-based Syrian High Negotiations Committee announced Monday that it's considering participating, but said it will only do so if it's the only opposition group allowed at the table.

"We don't want to go to Geneva and discuss issues like lifting the siege and releasing the prisoners," Mohammad Alloush, a top rebel leader affiliated with the committee, told the New York Times. "We want to discuss the transitional government, the cease-fire, the return of the displaced."

Further complicating the process, some opposition leaders have also stated that no new discussions can begin until airstrikes are halted, government takeovers are stopped and prisoners are freed -- stipulations that are extremely unlikely to be met before one word is uttered at the peace table.

De Mistura said he's not yet identifying possible rebel negotiators in order to start peace talks "on the right foot."

"It will be [an] uphill [battle] anyhow," he said.

The first round of new talks, expected to last two or three weeks, will focus mainly on implementing a cease-fire agreement in Syria so the U.N. can deliver much-needed humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged country.

"We want something that puts an end to the fighting," de Mistura said. "Our main principle is no preconditions. Just come and talk about everything that is of concern."

The U.N. hopes the talks will ultimately result in the drafting of a new constitution and free elections.

Syria has been engaged in civil war since March 2011, when Assad's government began heavily cracking down on citizens protesting his rule. Rebel fighters have been trying to overthrow government authorities ever since -- in recent years with the aid of the United States government, and against military force provided by Russia.

In that time, more than a quarter-million people have been killed in fighting, and 20 million have fled Syria -- which sparked a European migrant crisis that reached a fever pitch in 2015.

A report over the weekend by Al-Hayat said rebel leaders claim the United States, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have issued an ultimatum to opposition factions: Show up to the negotiating table or lose U.S. support.

Kerry said Monday that reports of a U.S. ultimatum are untrue and speculated that opposition leaders are simply posturing ahead of the process.

"We are still supporting the opposition, politically, financially and militarily, and it's up to the Syrians to decide what happens to Assad," Kerry said. "All of us are all on the same page, there's no disagreement, but we have to make sure that the other parties, the negotiating parties, are also clear and on the same page."

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