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Syrian regime on the offensive as negotiations 'officially begin'

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura announced that start of talks on Monday [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 2 February, 2016

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The UN envoy for Syria declared the official start of peace negotiations in Switzerland, but it is not clear whether continued Russian-backed regime attacks will allow for making any success.
Putting further pressure on peace talks between the Syrian regime and opposition representatives in the Swiss capital, the Syrian regime and allied militias launched a large-scale offensive on the Aleppo countryside on Monday, capturing the strategic village of Tal Jabin that is on the rebel supply route in the area.

Russian and Syrian warplanes also conducted tens of airstrikes in the Aleppo countryside, killing scores of people according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

As Russia and Assad continued their relentless campaign against armed Syrian opposition factions, the UN envoy for Syria on Monday declared the official start of peace negotiations in Switzerland aimed at charting a way out of the brutal war that has killed more than 260,000 people.

Speaking after his first formal meeting in Geneva with the main opposition grouping, Staffan de Mistura said that indirect talks between the government and the opposition are now "starting officially".

The UN envoy said he expected the talks to be "complicated and difficult," but that Syria's people deserved to "see something concrete, apart from a long, painful negotiation."

He said he could not say how long he expected a first round of talks to last, but said he hoped the negotiations would "achieve something" by February 11.

The main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) had demanded that before starting talks humanitarian aid must get through to besieged cities and Russian and regime bombardment of civilians must stop, along with the release of prisoners.

In an apparent "goodwill" gesture, Syria's government agreed "in principle" on Monday to allow aid into three besieged towns, including starvation-struck Madaya, the UN said.

"The government has in principle approved convoys... to Madaya and simultaneously to Kafraya and Fuaa," said Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN's humanitarian agency.

HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet sounded upbeat after the meeting with de Mistura, vowing that his group "will strive to join the political process".

However, Meslet also strongly criticised the Russian role in Syria.

"The regime is the one killing the Syrian people," al-Meslet said when asked by a reporter working for a Russian media outlet about the participation of a representative of the militant Army of Islam group that is in the opposition's delegation.

"The regime in Russia will produce a new Hitler, and we are suffering from another Hitler in Syria."

The West is backing off from demands that Assad leave before any such transition starts, seeing him as a lesser evil than IS

'No common ground'

The highly complex, almost five-year-old Syrian war has forced half of Syria's population to flee their homes, with millions fleeing to neighbouring states or even risking their lives reaching Europe.

In November, world powers agreed in Vienna on an ambitious roadmap that foresees six months of talks leading to a new constitution and free elections within 18 months.

But they did not address the controversial question about the future of Iran and Russia's ally Assad, whose forces in recent months have made progress on the ground thanks to Moscow's military involvement.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Monday the talks "must deliver a political transition away from Assad".

But experts say the West is backing off from demands that Assad leave before any such transition starts, seeing him as a lesser evil than IS.

The HNC said it was waiting to hear more from de Mistura after he meets with the delegation representing Assad's government on Tuesday.

The Syrian regime and allied militias launched a large-scale offensive on the Aleppo countryside Monday

Fractious opposition

However, the Syrian government's chief negotiator, Bashar al-Jaafari, denounced the HNC as "not serious" on Sunday.

"We do not know who is the other side. They don't even have a final list (of negotiators)," said al-Jaafari.

In particular, the government objects to the inclusion in the Saudi-back HNC of rebels who it sees as "terrorists".

One of these is the HNC's chief negotiator, Mohammed Alloush, from the powerful Islamist armed rebel group Army of Islam, or Jaish al-Islam, who arrived in Geneva late Monday.

"We came to find a solution," Alloush said after arriving, adding however: "There is no common ground with the regime. The regime wants to eliminate the opposition."

In a potentially hopeful sign, Western diplomats said Sunday that Riad Hijab, the head of the HNC and a former Syrian prime minister, was also due in Geneva soon.

The HNC has also formed a 40-woman advisory committee that will be present in Geneva to coordinate with Syrian civil society groups and push on humanitarian issues.

"We are part of the revolution and will support the negotiation team with our expertise," Nagham Ghadri, a member of the committee told The New Arab.

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