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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Vienna talks 'last hope' for Syria

UN officials are hosting two-days of negotiations between the Damascus regime and the opposition

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura (R) and Syrian chief negotiator Bashar Al Jaafari shake hands before the start of peace talks in Vienna on January 25, 2018. Alex Halada/AFP
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura (R) and Syrian chief negotiator Bashar Al Jaafari shake hands before the start of peace talks in Vienna on January 25, 2018. Alex Halada/AFP

A ninth round of UN-brokered Syria peace talks began in Vienna on Thursday amid a government offensive against rebels in Idlib province and Turkey's attack on Syrian Kurds in the north.

The two-days of talks in Vienna follow eight rounds in Geneva in which the government and opposition refused to even meet face to face, and the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is expected to remain a major stumbling block. The opposition insists he must cede power as part of any deal to end a seven-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

“The talks in Vienna are unlikely to make any substantial headway, as the regime has little incentive to reach a political settlement with the opposition at the moment,” Nussaibah Younis, associate fellow at the British think thank Chatham House told The National.

The UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was scheduled to meet the regime delegation before noon and the main opposition group, the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), in the afternoon.

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Mr de Mistura said the talks come at a “very, very critical moment”. The UN says hundreds of thousands of people lack food and medical care in the government-besieged rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. Tens of thousands more have been forced to flee their homes in the middle of winter because of the fighting in Idlib.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the negotiations were "the last hope for reaching a political solution”.

Mr Le Drian also highlighted a "considerable worsening of the humanitarian situation" in Idlib, Eastern Ghouta and the Kurdish-held region of Afrin in northern Syria.

Turkey on Saturday launched an offensive alongside Syrian rebels to oust the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia from Afrin, and has threatened to extend its campaign east to clear all Kurdish forces from its border with Syria.

“The Turkish assault on Syrian-Kurdish areas will give the regime overwhelming control over Syrian territory, and little reason to accept demands for a political transition,” Ms Younis said

"It makes it more likely that the regime will be able to eventually exert its control over Kurdish-held territory, either directly or through an agreement with the Kurds," she said.

The Vienna talks come ahead of a "Congress of National Dialogue" peace conference backed by Russia, Iran and Turkey in in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi next Tuesday.

Mr Al Assad's government has said it will go to Sochi, but the SNC has not yet decided, even after a recent visit to Moscow.