Syria peace talks restart in Geneva

A new round of Syria peace talks opens on Tuesday, the latest United Nations push to resolve a six-year conflict that has killed more than 320,000 people.

Five previous rounds of UN-backed negotiations have failed to yield concrete results and hopes for a major breakthrough remain dim.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has strengthened his position on the ground, with the rebels reeling from a major setback in the capital Damascus.

Assad has also recently called the Geneva process “null,” telling Belarus’s ONT channel that it had become “merely a meeting for the media.”

The Syrian leader has however given more credit to a separate diplomatic track in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, which is being led by his allies Russia and Iran along with opposition supporter Turkey.

The Astana track produced a May 4 deal to create four “de-escalation” zones across some of Syria’s bloodiest battlegrounds.

The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has dismissed suggestions that the Astana negotiations were overshadowing the Geneva track.

“We’re working in tandem” he told reporters on Monday.

The UN negotiations are focused on four separate “baskets“: governance, a new constitution, elections and combating “terrorism” in the war-ravaged country.

With Assad’s negotiators and the main opposition High Negotiations Committee expected to be in the Swiss city until the weekend, de Mistura said he wanted to drill down on several issues in hopes of generating solid proposals.

But one issue — Assad’s fate — remains a daunting roadblock.

The HNC has insisted the president’s ouster must be part of any political transition, a demand unacceptable to the Syrian regime.

Aron Lund, a fellow at The Century Foundation, said the Geneva talks were revolving around the “dead end” issue of Assad and were not “moving forward in any visible way.”

De Mistura, who has lasted as Syria envoy far longer than his two predecessors, has consistently tried to resist pessimism.

The alternative to peace talks is “no discussion (and) no hope,” he said.

The Syrian regime delegation is being headed as usual by UN ambassador Bashar Al-Jaafari and the HNC will be led again by Nasr Al-Hariri and Mohammad Sabra.

The opposition position has weakened since the last round ended on March 31 after the government secured the evacuation of three rebel-held districts, bringing it closer to exerting full control over the capital for the first time since 2012.

Another shifting force influencing the talks is the role of the United States, an erstwhile opposition supporter that largely withdrew from the process under President Donald Trump.

De Mistura said Monday he was “encouraged by the increasing engagement, the increasing interest, by the US administration in finding a de-escalation.”

However, Washington late Monday warned Russia to not turn a blind eye to Assad’s crimes, with the State Department releasing satellite images that it said backed up reports of mass killings at a Syrian jail.