UNITED NATIONS — High-level talks to end Syria’s civil war began in Geneva on Friday — nearly five years since hostilities began — while the humanitarian crisis it spawned worsens and fighting continues apace.
Staffan de Mistura, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy, who is mediating the Intra-Syrian talks, met with a delegation from the government of Syria, which was led by its UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari.
The one-party conversation in the third round of talks based in the Swiss capital was by design: de Mistura will shuttle between parties representing the Syrian government and opposition in separate rooms, at least preliminarily, in what the mediator has dubbed “proximity talks.”
The Geneva III talks are aimed at ending the civil war that UN officials have estimated has taken 300,000 lives since it began in March 2011, sparked an unprecedented humanitarian crisis as swathes of the country remain under siege, their populations literally starving to death, and spilled millions of refugees into neighboring and faraway countries.
Experts, UN officials and diplomats have said the war created regional instability and an opportunity for the expansion of the Islamic State, which has eagerly joined the opposition groups trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“Now the issue is obviously that any type of cease-fire discussions, which is obviously something that we are aiming at, apart from substantive discussions on the future of Syria, need two interlocutors,” de Mistura said after speaking with the Syrian delegation, the UN’s news agency said.
A cease fire and humanitarian relief are two critical short-term goals of the talks, as dictated by UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which passed in December and provides a framework for the talks. The ultimate outcome is a lasting peace and transitional government in accordance with the 2012 Geneva Communique.
The talks have been clouded in secrecy as it was unclear, even up to the first day of talks, whether and which opposition groups would attend. De Mistura refused to provide a list of invitees in an effort to prevent the parties from declining invitations because a disliked party would be present.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was pleased to learn that a U.S.-backed umbrella of opposition groups formed by Saudi Arabia would attend.
“The United States welcomes the important decision by the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian opposition to attend negotiations hosted by the United Nations in Geneva,” he said in a statement issued Friday.
“The United States also reiterates that UN Security Council Resolution 2254 must be fully implemented by all parties to the talks, including with regard to the urgent need for humanitarian access for besieged areas of Syria,” he said. “The United States further expects that both sides in these negotiations will participate in good faith and achieve early, measurable progress in the days ahead.”
Meanwhile, the UN’s humanitarian organizations, among them the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the World Food Programme, repeated pleas to the diplomats to work immediately toward a cease fire and delivery of aid to as many as 4.6 million Syrians in 18 besieged areas.
The World Food Programme “is appealing that all humanitarian actors be given access to those areas so that they can deliver lifesaving aid,” said Bettina Luescher of the WFP, referring to places such as Madaya, a town of about 40,000 whose citizens have been starved to death by the combatants.
“It is a very complicated and bureaucratic process, and only a very small number of permissions have been given access to besieged areas, where tens of thousands of families are still waiting for aid,” she said. “This is why putting an end to the fighting is paramount. WFP is talking to all sides, but an agreement has to be made on the ground.”
The initial phase of talks is expected to last between two and three weeks while the whole conference is estimated to last for about six months.