Bashar al-Assad’s fate key issue at peace talks in Geneva

Syrian government negotiators at Geneva peace talks are coming under unaccustomed pressure to discuss something far outside their comfort zone: The fate of president Bashar al-Assad. And they are doing their best to avoid it.

Bashar al-Assad’s fate key issue at peace talks in Geneva

UN mediator Staffan de Mistura describes Syria’s political transition as “the mother of all issues” and, emboldened by the Russian and US muscle that brought the participants to the negotiating table, he refuses to drop the subject.

After a week of talks, he praised the opposition for the depth of their ideas, but criticised the veteran diplomats on the government side for getting bogged down.

“The government is currently focusing very much on principles, which are necessary in any type of common ground on the transition,” he said.

“But I hope next week, and I have been saying so to them, that we will get their opinion, their details on how they see the political transition taking place.”

The main opposition, along with the US and other Western nations, has long insisted any peace deal must include Assad’s departure from power, while the Syrian government and Russia have said there is no such clause in the international agreements that underwrite the peace process.

The Syrian president looked more secure than ever at the start of the latest round of talks, riding high after a Russian-backed military campaign.

But Russia’s surprise withdrawal of most of its forces during the week signalled that Moscow expected its Syrian allies to take the Geneva talks seriously.

And de Mistura appointed a Russian expert to sit in the negotiations with him and to advise on political issues.

Unlike previous rounds, the talks have run for a week without any hint of collapse, forcing the government delegation led by Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Ja’afari to acknowledge de Mistura’s demands.

Ja’afari began by giving de Mistura a document entitled “Basic elements for a political solution”.

“Approving these principles will open a serious dialogue under Syrian leadership without foreign intervention and without preconditions,” Ja’afari said on Friday, in a brief statement after the longest session of the talks so far.

But officials and diplomats described the document as “very thin”, “bland”, and “off the point”.

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