UN calls for ‘real progress’ at Syria peace talks

Geneva: Difficult negotiations on ending the devastating civil war in Syria began in earnest in Geneva today after a government delegation arrived, with the UN mediator urging all sides to aim for “real progress”.

The government in Damascus had initially refused to confirm it would attend the United Nations-brokered peace talks, which formally opened yesterday, after the rebels signalled they would maintain a hardline on their call for President Bashar al-Assad to be removed from office.

But government negotiators sat down today with UN mediator Staffan de Mistura — first at a luxury Geneva hotel and later at the UN — after reportedly securing key concessions, including keeping the Assad issue off the table.

De Mistura then met with representatives of the Syrian opposition.

In the past two years, thanks in part to Russian military support, the Syrian regime has made major advances against its opponents, taking back large chunks of the war-ravaged country — and easing the pressure to negotiate.

The talks have achieved little through seven previous rounds that began last year, but there are hopes that progress will be made this time.

De Mistura said the atmosphere in his meeting with the government was “constructive and professional”. He said the talks may stretch into next week.

At day’s end, the UN envoy issued a statement stressing that “the time has come to focus on achieving real progress on the political process, in the interest of the Syrian people”.

The six-year war has claimed more than 340,000 lives, forced millions to flee their homes and left Syria in ruins.

De Mistura also called on all parties involved to “refrain from statements aimed at delegitimising other invitees.”

Government delegation chief Bashar al-Jaafari declined to speak to reporters.

The opposition, united in one delegation for the first time, has stressed it is anxious for face-to-face talks with the government.