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UN special envoy to Syria announces start of peace talks

Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria,

Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, seen in Moscow on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. Credit: EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Yuri Kochetkov

UNITED NATIONS — The UN’s special envoy to Syria on Monday optimistically announced the start of the eight rounds of peace talks in Geneva for Tuesday, a conference he said could mark the start of “serious discussions” to end a nearly seven-year civil conflict that has uprooted half of the country’s residents and snuffed out up to 500,000 lives.

But Staffan de Mistura spoke on the same day that independent medical experts and humanitarian agencies said eastern Ghouta, a city that remains under siege, was gripped by an unfolding crisis as bombs rained on the city’s civilian population at an escalating rate.

And for all his enthusiasm about the prospect for success, de Mistura conceded the Syrian government had not yet confirmed its attendance at the high-level talks in Switzerland.

“Assuming that both parties arrive in Geneva, we will be looking to move them into beginning serious discussions and, hopefully, negotiations,” said de Mistura, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ special envoy to Syria. “Let me make one thing clear: We will not accept any preconditions from either party.”

De Mistura spoke through a satellite link to brief the Security Council on the contributions that various talks in a number of cities — Astana, Riyadh, Moscow and others — have had on the Geneva process, which is considered the chief forum for negotiating an end to the war that began in March 2011 and has drawn in foreign fighters from 100 countries.

He noted that the Islamic State group, the extremist group that has been working to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, had been all but defeated by campaigns of forces that have been adversaries with each other: the U.S.-backed and -assisted opposition groups that also seek Assad’s ouster, and the Russia and Iran-backed Syrian military.

“This crisis, one of the worst in the history of the United Nations, now has the potential to move towards a genuine political process,” he said. “A clearer map of de-escalation, cease fire and deconfliction arrangements has emerged, largely enabled by Astana and Amman. We see the emergence of international consensus, and we must begin to stitch the process into concrete results, enabling Syrians to determine their own future freely.”

Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders reported that hundreds of people in eastern Ghouta in Syria have been subject to intense bombing in recent days, adding that the five hospitals the agency supports have treated 576 people and recorded 69 deaths. Those numbers are not the full measure of injuries and deaths, the agency said, since it does not have figures on those treated at other facilities.

“During this period of intense conflict, medical care is urgently needed for men, women and children,” said Bertrand Perrochet, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, in a news release. “But the services in East Ghouta are stretched beyond their limits.”

And Ghanem Tayara, a physician and chairman of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, said eastern Ghouta is enduring some of the worst violence since the war broke out.

“There have been over 600 people injured and 108 killed in the past 10 days,” he said. “Many of the medical facilities in eastern Ghouta have been shut down and those remaining are overloaded with the influx of patients — the most they have seen in five years.”

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