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UN’s Geneva talks on ending Syrian civil war stalled

Pro-government forces inspect a building in Rabia in

Pro-government forces inspect a building in Rabia in Syria on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. Clashing opinions over Geneva-based talks aimed at ending Syria's nearly five-year civil war led organizers to postpone the high-level chat, UN officials said. Credit: AFP/Getty Images / STR

UNITED NATIONS — Clashing opinions over which countries and parties should participate in the Geneva-based talks aimed at ending Syria’s nearly five-year civil war led the conveners to postpone the high-level chat from Monday until Friday, UN officials said.

“Due to the intense disagreements, frankly, and different opinions on who should be on the list, the actual beginning of the talk, which was meant to be today, 25 January, have been delayed,” said Staffan de Mistura, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy to Syria, from the Swiss capital, declining to provide specifics. “And today, therefore, instead of announcing the beginning of the talks, I am in a position of still announcing to you the date in which, in my opinion, we will be in a position to send invitations — tomorrow.”

De Mistura said that the invitations to the Geneva Intra-Syrian Talks would be sent out as early as Tuesday — and that any delegations hoping to attend the talks should have a “substantial presence of women,” and no terrorist ties. Organizations such as the Islamic State group and Nusra Front, which is an a-Qaida affiliate, are expressly prohibited from participating, according to UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which provided the framework for the talks.

In New York, Ban spokesman Stephane Dujarric said an initial round of what officials are calling “proximity talks,” would occur over two to three weeks and that the next phases of discussion could stretch out over a six-month period.

He added that the talks would focus on imposing a cease fire, delivering humanitarian aid and stopping terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. De Mistura said the Geneva Communique of 2012, which was reached when former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan served as the special envoy, remains “the umbrella for everything we are going to do,” adding that the UN resolution is a ”refinement and more precise of what could be the umbrella of the Geneva Communique.”

The six-point plan outlined in that document is still the broader road map for a political resolution to the war. The six points include working with the envoy, establishing a cease fire, providing humanitarian assistance, releasing detainees, allowing journalists to freely move throughout the country, and respecting people’s right to assemble and peacefully conduct demonstrations.

The communique also dictates “a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” a much debated string of text that some interpret as calling for Syria President Bashar Assad’s ouster, which the United States wants, but which Russia has rejected.

The rancor over who is to be invited, de Mistura said, was reminiscent of the lackluster second round of talks in Geneva in early 2014, which seemed unable to clear a number of hurdles, including reaching consensus over who should be at the table. For example, the dozens of Syrian opposition groups were divided over who would represent them, and some Western powers did not welcome Iran, a regional powerhouse that supports Assad.

De Mistura, who said “This is not Geneva III. This is leading to what we hope will be a Geneva success story, if we are able to push it forward,” declined to disclose which groups would be invited.

“I’ve been very much aware of the danger of what happened in Geneva II,” he said. “So that’s why, I’ve been, and am, particularly careful about the issue about invitations, because they do have an impact on making sure that we don’t have a repetition of Geneva II. The Syrians don’t deserve it, Geneva doesn’t deserve it and the secretary-general is feeling very strongly about it. . . . “I’m just simply saying that I’m going to send invitations based on the mandate that I’ve been given by the Security Council to actually issue invitations.”

The civil war in Syria began in March 2011 after Assad responded with a violent crackdown to protesters demanding reform during the height of the Arab Spring. Since then, opposition groups amassed forces and waged a protracted war that has left up to 300,000 people dead and displaced million internally and sparked a refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster.

Whole cities remain under siege and have been subject to the military operations of both the opposition and the government; life-threatening hazards ranging from the detonation of barrel bombs, the launch of chemical weapons, torture and, most recently, the use of starvation as a weapon — one of several maneuvers by the government and the opposition that Ban has called a “war crime.”

“Let me be clear,” Ban said earlier this month, “the use of food as a weapon of war is a war crime. All sides — including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians — are committing atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law.”

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