Rebels seek ‘direct negotiations’ with Assad government

Syria’s main opposition group has called for face-to-face discussions with government representatives, as a new round of talks in Geneva begins one year after meetings in the Swiss city fell apart.

“We ask for direct negotiations … It would save time and be proof of seriousness instead of negotiating in [separate] rooms,” Salem al-Meslet, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) umbrella group, told the AFP news agency.

The talks are set to begin on Thursday morning.

During three previous rounds of talks in Geneva last year, the two sides never sat down at the same table, instead leaving UN mediator Staffan de Mistura to shuttle between them.

De Mistura has played down expectations for major progress ahead of planned negotiations.

“Am I expecting a breakthrough? No, I am not expecting a breakthrough,” he told journalists at the UN headquarters on Wednesday, a day before the start of the fourth round of talks aimed at finding a political solution to Syria’s long-running conflict.

Though the Geneva talks are seen as the most serious diplomatic effort in months, disputes over the agenda and longstanding disagreements between the opposition and the government on the future of Syria have cast doubts on whether any progress will be achieved.

De Mistura said he was determined to maintain “a very pro-active momentum” to allow for political discussions on governance, a new constitution and elections under UN supervision, based on the UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

In recent days, however, the UN mediator has shied away from using the phrase “political transition” – a term the Syrian opposition equates with the removal of President Bashar al-Assad – to describe the goal of the talks.

During previous rounds of UN-led negotiations, the Syrian government categorically refused to discuss Assad’s fate – the main bone of contention between the two sides.

 

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