U.N. Syria Envoy Hopes for Progress After Talks Resume Monday

U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura talks to the media upon his departure from Damascus, Syria February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura talks to the media upon his departure from Damascus, Syria, Feb. 18. (Reuters/Omar Sanadiki)

The U.N. special envoy for Syria said Wednesday he is hoping the warring sides will make progress within 10 days after peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition resume next week in Geneva.

The resumption of the talks has been expected ever since a U.S.-Russia-engineered cease-fire, which has sharply reduced bloodshed in the five-year war, took effect on Feb. 27. The truce — though limited and tentative — has mostly held, even as sporadic violence has continued.

While delegates will arrive in batches over the coming days, Staffan de Mistura said he expects a more “substantive, deeper” phase of the negotiations to begin in earnest Monday. He said the peace talks will again be “proximity” talks — meaning indirect talks with the parties in separate rooms as the envoy shuttles between them.

By March 24, a recess is planned to let delegates return home and allow his U.N. team to take stock of what has been achieved.

“We believe that having a timetable and a time limit is healthy for everyone, so we don’t think that we can go on procedural discussions for two weeks hoping to get into substance — we go seriously into substance as soon as we can,” de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

His remarks gave little insight into expected advances or potential hang-ups in the talks. But they testified how the cease-fire, now approaching the two-week mark, has provided an opening for him to take a longer-term view of the efforts to end the war. That cease-fire has already coincided with a resumption of shipments of long-stalled humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of ailing and besieged Syrians.

On the agenda Monday, will be issues such as a new constitution, internationally-sought parliamentary and presidential elections, and new governance for Syria, the envoy said — though he did not address the issue of a possible departure of President Bashar Assad from power, a key hope of the opposition and its Western backers.

De Mistura specified the recess would last a “few days, a week, perhaps 10 days, in order to give the time to delegations to then return and for us to recap where we are on it — and then resume them, as we did in the past.”

The peace talks were abruptly suspended early last month, just days after they began, as fighting surged again amid Syrian government and Russian airstrikes in and near contested Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

Jan Egeland, de Mistura’s adviser on humanitarian aid, said that since the cease-fire agreement was struck four weeks ago, ten besieged areas “have been reached by U.N. and partners — several of them with multiple convoys.”

“We still have not reached six important besieged areas, including Daraya and Douma,” Egeland warned.

The cease-fire has offered the most promising, if distant, hope in years to end a war that has cost over 250,000 lives, driven 11 million people from their homes, and given an opening to terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Syria’s al-Qaida branch, the Nusra Front, to seize land. Those groups have been excluded from the diplomatic efforts.