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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Syria talks: No show for government yet again in Geneva

France accused the Syrian regime of obstructing the UN-brokered peace talks — and the chance for progress — with its refusal to return to the Swiss city

Members of the Syrian opposition delegation arrive for a meeting as part of the UN-brokered talks in Geneva on December 1, 2017. Denis Balibouse / EPA
Members of the Syrian opposition delegation arrive for a meeting as part of the UN-brokered talks in Geneva on December 1, 2017. Denis Balibouse / EPA

UN-brokered talks continued in Geneva on Wednesday with no sign of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s delegation returning to the negotiating table after walking out last week.

The peace talks, which began on Tuesday last week and are set to continue until December 15, have so far made little progress. The government delegation left Geneva on Saturday, blaming opposition demands that Mr Al Assad should play no role in any interim post-war government.

This round of UN-brokered talks, the eighth, is supposed to focus on the first so-called "basket" of issues up for negotiation, including what a post-war political transition will look like and the writing of a new constitution. The second basket, which includes post-war elections, is supposed to be discussed at a ninth round of talks.

“We have had our fifth session of this round," Yahya Aridi, the opposition delegation’s spokesperson, said on Wednesday after meeting with UN officials for a second day in a row without government representatives present. "We have discussed the first 'basket' on political transition, how relations should be in the institutions. This is in the context of the constitution and electoral processes.”

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He said the opposition's continuing discussions with the UN showed their "seriousness about bringing peace to Syria and the irresponsibility of the other side towards Syria".

On Tuesday, the opposition called on the United Nations and allies of Mr Al Assad to halt a bombing campaign that has escalated in recent weeks against Eastern Ghouta, a besieged rebel-held suburb of eastern Damascus.

"The bloody campaign on Ghouta confirms yet again that the regime is not in a state of negotiation and that they are not concerned in having any political solution. On the contrary, they are willing to undermine any track that might lead to a political solution," Mr Aridi said.

Meanwhile, France on Wednesday accused the Syrian government of obstructing the talks with its refusal to return to the Swiss city and called on Assad ally Russia to not shirk its responsibility in getting Damascus to the negotiating table.

The French foreign ministry's deputy spokesman, Alexandre Georgini, said: "We condemn the absence of the delegation of the regime and its refusal to engage in good faith in the negotiations to achieve a political solution.”

"This refusal highlights the obstruction strategy of the political process carried out by the Damascus regime, which is responsible for the absence of progress in the negotiations," he added.

Mr Georgini stressed that Russia, one of Mr Al Assad’s main backers, needed to assume its responsibilities so that the Syrian government finally entered the negotiations.

On Friday, Bashar Al Jaafari, the chief negotiator for the regime, declared that "this round of talks is finished for us", saying his team would fly back home and that "Damascus will decide" whether they would return to the UN-backed talks.

Syria's opposition has insisted that Mr Al Assad must step down, but his negotiators have refused to discuss the issue and the regime's recent successes on the battlefield have strengthened his hand.

On the issue of Mr Al Assad stepping down, the UN's chief mediator, Staffan de Mistura, said: "I want to believe that that issue should come up from the Syrians through UN-supervised elections."

Last week, Mr de Mistura shuttled between the opposition and government negotiating teams, who were installed in separate rooms off the same corridor. Despite this, he said that face-to-face contact was less important than the substance of talks, and that the atmosphere was "professional and serious" on both sides.