Syrian government won’t attend start of peace talks, UN envoy says

Despite Syria’s absence, Staffan de Mistura expresses optimism over potential to reach political solution to civil war

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura arrives for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister in Moscow on November 24, 2017. (AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov)
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura arrives for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister in Moscow on November 24, 2017. (AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov)

UNITED NATIONS — The Syrian government has not yet confirmed that it will attend talks with the opposition aimed at ending the war and will not head to Geneva on Monday, the UN envoy said.

“Last night, we received a message that the government would not travel to Geneva today,” Staffan de Mistura told the Security Council.

The UN envoy is due to open an eighth round of talks on a political settlement after previous negotiations achieved little progress.

Syria’s disparate opposition groups agreed last week following a meeting in Riyadh to send a united opposition to Geneva, a move seen as a boost to prospects for a breakthrough.

“The government did not yet confirm its participation in Geneva, but indicated that we would be hearing from them soon,” De Mistura said via videoconference from the Swiss city.

“Naturally, we know and indeed expect that the government will be on its way shortly, particularly in light of President [Bashar] Assad’s commitment to President [Vladimir] Putin when they met in Sochi,” he added.

During a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi last Monday, Assad said he was “ready for dialogue with all those who want to come up with a political settlement.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, embraces Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, November 20, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Kremlin Pool via AP)

Russia has proposed holding a “congress” to bring together the government and opposition in Sochi, but has not yet set a date for that gathering.

Moscow is seeking UN support for that meeting, but De Mistura told the council that it was “premature for me to say anything regarding this initiative.”

Western powers are concerned that Russia is seeking to take a leading role in the peace process and will carve out a settlement that will largely favor its ally, Assad.

De Mistura said he would be meeting with the ambassadors from Security Council permanent representatives — Britain, France, China, Russia and the United States — in Geneva on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming talks.

“This crisis — one of the worst in the history of the UN — now has the potential, the real potential to move toward a genuine political process,” said the envoy.

More than 330,000 people have died in the six-year war, half of the population has been displaced and the country lies in ruin.

The UN envoy said he expected reconstruction to cost $250 billion.

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