UN Syria envoy joins Kerry, Lavrov meeting
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UN Syria envoy joins Kerry, Lavrov meeting

De Mistura’s participation in talks with American, Russian diplomats could be ‘important’ for bringing warring sides to negotiating table

File: US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on August 26, 2016, as they meet in Geneva for an expected push towards resuming peace talks for war-ravaged Syria. (AFP Photo/Pool/Martial Trezzini)
File: US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on August 26, 2016, as they meet in Geneva for an expected push towards resuming peace talks for war-ravaged Syria. (AFP Photo/Pool/Martial Trezzini)

GENEVA (AFP) — The UN envoy for Syria on Friday joined a closely-watched meeting between Russia and the United States, raising hopes for progress towards resuming peace talks for the war-ravaged country.

Staffan de Mistura arrived shortly before 1:00 p.m. (1100 GMT) at a Geneva luxury hotel where US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had been meeting since mid-morning.

Their talks were expected to center heavily on Syria’s devastating conflict, with de Mistura hinting Thursday the discussion would be “important,” and could help his drive to restart peace talks.

The UN envoy had voiced hope of bringing the warring parties back to the negotiating table by the end of August, but that deadline looks sure to slip in the face of intense fighting on the ground.

Successive rounds of international negotiations have failed to end a conflict that has killed more than 290,000 people and forced millions from their homes.

Moscow and Washington support opposite sides in the war, which erupted in 2011 after President Bashar Assad unleashed a brutal crackdown against a pro-democracy revolt.

Friday morning, Kerry and Lavrov shook hands cordially before the cameras, but did not comment on what they expected from their meeting.

When asked by a reporter what they thought was the primary impediment to a ceasefire in Syria, Lavrov said: “I don’t want to spoil the atmosphere for the negotiations.”

Kerry, who flew in late Thursday from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia where he announced a new peace push for conflict-torn Yemen, made no comment.

Friday’s meeting came as the conflict became further complicated by Ankara’s decision this week to send tanks into Syria.

Turkish-backed rebel fighters have seized the Syrian border town of Jarabulus from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. But Turkish forces have also shelled a US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia.

Turkey sees the PYD and YPG militia as terror groups bent on carving out an autonomous region in Syria and acting as the Syrian branch of its own outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Ankara’s hostility to the YPG also puts it at loggerheads with its NATO ally the United States, which works with the group on the ground in the fight against IS.

The Russian air force has been carrying out air strikes in Syria since September last year, claiming it only targets extremists.

The West and the Syrian opposition have accused it of hitting civilian targets in rebel-held areas — claims that Moscow denies.

But the US and Russia have a common foe in IS, and they have been in contact on efforts to establish military cooperation against the jihadists.

As a possible sign of tightening cooperation, Moscow vowed Thursday to work with the United States on a response after a UN investigation found that the Syrian regime had carried out at least two chemical attacks.

The two countries co-chair a UN-backed humanitarian task force for Syria, which has been struggling to ensure access for desperately-needed aid across the country.

Aleppo, Syria’s second city, has emerged as a top concern for negotiators.

Russia last week gave its blessing to a long-demanded 48-hour pause in fighting in the city to allow in aid, but de Mistura on Thursday accused other unspecified parties of still dragging their feet.

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