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Assad's future remains major obstacle as Geneva talks restart

Syrians walk amidst debris in the city of Aleppo. [AFP]

Date of publication: 16 May, 2017

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A new round of peace talks opened in Geneva on Tuesday in the latest push by the UN to resolve Syria's brutal six-year war.

A new round of Syria peace talks opened in Geneva on Tuesday in the latest push by the United Nations to resolve a six-year conflict that has killed more than 320,000 people

The UN negotiations are focused on four separate issues: governance, a new constitution, elections and combating "terrorism" in the war-ravaged country, collectively known as the "four baskets".

With Assad's negotiators and the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) expected to be in the Swiss city until the weekend, UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said he wanted to drill down on several issues in hopes of generating solid proposals. 

Syrian regime delegation chief Bashar al-Jaafari was holding an initial meeting with de Mistura at the UN on Tuesday, while the HNC, led by Nasr al-Hariri and Mohammad Sabra, was due to meet the UN envoy later in the day.
  
But five previous rounds of UN-backed negotiations have failed to yield concrete results and hopes for a major breakthrough remain dim. 

Bashar al-Assad has strengthened his position on the ground after a major recent setback for the rebels in Damascus, and recently described the Geneva process as "null" and "merely a meeting for the media".

The regime president has, however, given credit to a rival diplomatic track in Kazakhstan's capital Astana, which is being led by his allies Russia and Iran along with opposition supporter Turkey. 

The Astana track produced a May 4 deal to create four "de-escalation" zones across some of Syria's bloodiest battlegrounds.

De Mistura, however, has dismissed suggestions that the Astana negotiations were overshadowing the Geneva track, saying: "We're working in tandem."

Assad's future

The fate of Bashar al-Assad remains a major stumbling block in the UN talks, with the HNC insisting the president's departure must be part of any political transition.

But the opposition position has weakened since the last round of talks ended on March 31, with the government securing the evacuation of three rebel-held districts, bringing Damascus under near full regime control for the first time since 2012.

Another factor is the withdrawal of the United States from the talks under President Donald Trump, having previously been an erstwhile backer of the opposition.

However, Washington late on Monday warned Russia to not turn a blind eye to Assad's crimes, with the State Department releasing satellite images that it said backed up reports of mass killings at a Syrian jail.

The Syrian regime is engaging in industrial-scale killing of detainees, while disposing tens of thousands of bodies in a crematorium built for the purpose near Damascus, the US government said.

The head of the opposition delegation to the talks welcomed the US statement, but complained it had come too late.

"This is but a drop in the ocean. What happens in the regime's prisons is much uglier than this," Nasr al-Hariri said.

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