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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Syria Talks Off to Difficult Start

by Luis Ramirez January 28, 2016

After being delayed from Monday, talks are set to get underway in Geneva Friday on what promises to be a long road to peace in Syria where the conflict – soon entering its sixth year – has killed a quarter of a million people.

Just hours before the start, it was still unclear who would take part in the talks, which organizers say will not be peace negotiations, but proximity talks meant to lay the groundwork for negotiations.

Syrian government representatives decided to attend after discussions earlier this month with U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura in Damascus.

Despite the odds presented by an escalating campaign by both the Russian-backed Syrian government and a fractured opposition that includes al-Qaida and Islamic State terrorists, the U.N. envoy sees the talks as an important first step. "My job is to be always optimistic," he said after his meetings with Assad government officials recently.

De Mistura sent out invitations to the talks on Tuesday. U.N. officials indicated the list would not be made public until the start of the talks.

Setting the stage for negotiations has proven a difficult and fragile process. The talks are starting against a backdrop of unceasing violence.

On Tuesday, two bombs killed 22 people in Homs, an opposition stronghold now largely back under government control. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

As U.N.-designated terrorists, Islamic State militants are not invited to the Geneva talks. Amid speculation by some in the opposition that another delay could happen, organizers are working until the last minute to avoid the talks being spoiled before they start.

Separate rooms, no face-to-face

For one, organizers are leaving potential troublemakers off the list of participants.

After Turkey threatened to withdraw support of the process, word came from France that the Syrian Kurdish party, whose forces have been supported by both the U.S. and Russia, was out. "The PYD, the Kurdish group which was causing the most problems, Mr. de Mistura told me he had not sent them an invitation letter,' French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris Wednesday.

Once talks start in Geneva, the plan is to keep all parties in separate rooms, with no face-to-face meetings.

The important thing, say analysts, is that something is being done. David Butter, a Middle East politics expert at Chatham House in London, said the outcome of the talks is uncertain at best, but they may serve as a necessary sign that the world community is doing something to stop a seemingly endless and profoundly destabilizing conflict.

"This is a realistic appraisal of international consensus that we need to have some sort of political process going on, perhaps a recognition of the parties, certainly the opposition parties, that they're starting to get exhausted with the conflict itself and it has been so damaging on every level, humanitarian and otherwise," Butter said.

Pressure to enter into negotiations is largely external, with the United States, the European Union, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia all pushing for a solution.

In the West, that urgency has been fed by terrorist attacks in Paris and the United States, and by the migrant crisis. The number of migrants flowing mainly from Syria and Iraq to Western Europe is expected to reach four million by the end of next year. Officials say nearly 40,000 have entered Western Europe in the three weeks since the start of 2016.

On Thursday, there were renewed doubts of whether the talks would start on Friday as planned.

A major opposition group known as the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee said it is postponing its decision to attend. The group, meeting in Riyadh this week, wants to be the only opposition delegation at the talks and was awaiting a response from de Mistura with details on who else will be attending before deciding whether to go to Geneva.

The talks had been set to begin on January 25 but were delayed to Friday by discussions on who should represent the opposition.

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