Stage is set for Syria peace talks as opposition arrives in Geneva

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An overview of the room where U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura and the Syrian delegation lead by Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Bashar al Jaafari opened the Syrian peace talks at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, January 29, 2016. (REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE)

GENEVA – A delegation from Syria’s main opposition group arrived in Geneva on Saturday to join U.N.-mediated peace talks, demanding President Bashar al-Assad’s government be made to comply with a U.N. resolution on humanitarian aid and human rights.

“We are keen to make this negotiation a success,” opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat told reporters as the delegation arrived from Riyadh, ending weeks of uncertainty about whether they would come and the talks would happen.

The 17-strong team from the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), including political and militant opponents of Assad in the country’s 5-year-old civil war, is expected to have a first meeting with the U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura on Sunday, setting up the first peace talks in two years.

Muslat said the HNC insisted on implementation of a U.N. resolution demanding all sides allow aid access, release detainees, end sieges and stop targeting civilian areas. 

That was not a precondition for talks, he said, but it was the duty of the Security Council members who agreed the resolution last month, including Syria’s chief ally Russia, which is supporting Assad’s forces with a bombing campaign.

Russian air strikes on Syria have killed nearly 1,400 civilians since Moscow started its aerial campaign nearly four months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said on Saturday. 

“We are going to Geneva to put to the test the seriousness of the international community in its promises to the Syrian people and to also test the seriousness of the regime in implementing its humanitarian obligations,” HNC spokesman Riyad Naasan Agha said.

“We want to show the world our seriousness in moving toward negotiations to find a political solution,” he told Reuters.

Opposition coordinator Riad Hijab, who was not among the first HNC group to arrive, said in a statement posted online that there would have to be humanitarian improvements to justify the delegation’s continued presence in Geneva.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the talks must ensure human rights are upheld as participants work toward a political transition in Syria.

“Humanitarian law must be respected and the objective of a political transition actively pursued to enable the talks to succeed,” Fabius said in a statement sent to Reuters. 

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov was quoted by Russian Interfax news agency as saying that Moscow welcomed the decision by Syrian opposition coordinator, Riad Hijab, to take part in talks in Geneva.

U.N. SETS OUT AIMS

The United Nations earlier said the aim would be six months of talks, first seeking a ceasefire, later working toward a political settlement to a war that has killed more than 250,000 people, driven more than 10 million from their homes and drawn in global powers.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag: “Only at the negotiating table will it become clear if both sides are prepared to make painful compromises so that the killing stops and Syrians have a chance of a better future in their own country.”

The HNC’s demands include allowing aid convoys into rebel-held besieged areas where tens of thousands are living in dire conditions.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Saturday that 16 people had starved to death in the government-besieged town of Madaya since aid convoys arrived this month and accused the authorities of blocking medical shipments. 

“It is totally unacceptable that people continue to die from starvation, and that critical medical cases remain in the town when they should have been evacuated weeks ago,” said Brice de le Vingne, MSF’s director of operations in a statement. 

Agha said the opposition delegation, including HNC head Hijab and chief negotiator Asaad al-Zoubi, would not call for a complete cessation of hostilities but would demand an end to “the indiscriminate shelling of markets, hospitals and schools by the regime and its Russian backers”.

Russia and Syria deny targeting civilians, saying they take great care to avoid bombing residential areas.

Source: Reuters

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