Five years into the Syrian civil war which has witnessed two failed attempts at peace talks, consumed 250,000 lives and driven millions into exile, United Nations-sponsored negotiations opened in Geneva, Switzerland, on Friday.
Atop the list of concerns: A potential ceasefire, humanitarian aid delivery to the worst-hit areas, prisoner exchanges, and the threat of ISIS.
Representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s government met with United Nations (UN) negotiators in the morning.
Planned negotiations immediately threatened to break down when the Higher Negotiating Committee (HNC) representing Syria’s opposition announced it would not attend the opening round of conversation.
Just prior to the commencement of discussions, the Saudi-backed group met with UN officials.
Although over 40 groups are currently involved with what is referred to as the Syrian opposition, the HNC represents the largest bloc of opposition groups. A smaller number of resistance groups are represented in Geneva, but in an advisory role.
Warning of handing the Assad government a victory, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond urged HNC’s chief delegate, Riyadh Hijab, to appear at the negotiations.
The HNC’s main objections are the continued Russian bombing campaign, blockades of rebel-held areas, and the release of detainees.
“We have decided to participate in a political process to test the seriousness of the other side through talks with the United Nations team about the implementation of international and humanitarian commitment as an introduction to the negotiations process and to move toward forming a transitional governing council with full executive powers,” the HNC said in a statement.
Despite the HNC’s demands, fighting persisted near Latakia and in the suburbs of Damascus where Syrian troops continued to battle rebel groups reinforced by Russian airstrikes.
With talks on such unstable footing, pessimism remained high among representatives from each delegation:
“The least we can hope for is a significant reduction in violence and guarantees to protect civilian areas,” said one diplomat involved in talks.
[BBC] [The Guardian] [Photo courtesy The Telegraph]