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UN envoy to Syria launches another round of talks to end lengthy war that 'has intensified'

The UN Special Envoy of the Secretary General

The UN Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks during a press conference on the situation in Syria at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Credit: AP

UNITED NATIONS -- The UN envoy to Syria launched a third round of Geneva-based talks designed to end the war in Syria, which experts say has killed more than 220,000 people, displaced 8 million more, left the country in ruins and shows no signs of abating.

"Within the conflict now in its fifth year and three years since the adoption of the Geneva Communique and no follow-up, little, if anything, has moved," said Staffan de Mistura, the UN secretary-general's special envoy for Syria, during remarks in Geneva before the talks began Tuesday. "Yet the conflict has intensified and has also the tragedy endured by the Syrian people."

That Syrians are suffering unimaginable horrors, de Mistura said, was made clear in recent weeks as the UN's humanitarian chief Valerie Amos delivered a bleak analysis of the conditions on the ground, calling the war in Syria "breathtakingly savage."

The plight of Syrian civilians worsens as the war escalates in brutality, experts have said. The war, which began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, quickly devolved into a civil war when government troops cracked down on protesters of President Bashar Assad's rule.

UN officials have said that combatants on both sides may have violated the laws of war, committing crimes against humanity and war crimes through the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs; by attacking civilian targets, such as civil infrastructure and hospitals and schools; by blocking access tofood and medicine; by employing the wide-scale use torture; and by the killing of civilians.

"Guns will fall silent one day," de Mistura said. "The sooner they fall silent, the more lives will be saved."

The envoy stressed that the talks have a different structure than the previous two that were based in Geneva and coordinated by former envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, both veteran diplomats who quit in frustration over the lack of progress.

In the interim, Syria has become a haven for foreign fighters, tens of thousands of which have flocked to the war-torn nation to join Islamic State and al-Qaida's Al-Nusra Front in their bid to oust Assad from power and fuel a regional conflict in which Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia and Shia-controlled Iran battle each other in a proxy war through the Syrian conflict.

The UN Security Council itself has been unable to reach agreement on a solution to the conflict as Russia and China cast vetoes to several resolutions that -- the countries' leaders interpreted -- were designed to remove Assad from power. Some analysts see the deadlock at the Security Council is reminiscent of Cold War era in which Russia and the United States were most often at odds.

But de Mistura said flatly that the discussions could not be called Geneva III, emphasizing that the talks could continue with no set end date, and that they will not feature a "big roundtable with multilateral representation" or a "big communique at the end."

He added: "These are not peace talks. They are closed, low-key, separate, structured discussions with the parties, to consult on the current crisis in Syria."

De Mistura has invited as many as 40 parties from Syria and 20 other regional and international players, including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Russia, China, the United States, France and Great Britain.

"This process will be expanded as we move along," he said. "We want to get as broad a spectrum of views as possible. We want to hear their point of view."

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