Middle East

Syria conflict: Opposition sets terms for Geneva peace talks

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Media captionThe talks have already been delayed, amid arguments over who should attend

The main Syrian opposition group has arrived in Geneva, a day after backing down from their threat to boycott the UN-sponsored peace talks.

But a spokesman said they stood by their demand for an end to air strikes and blockades before they will negotiate with the Syrian government.

Their delegation is due to meet UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on Sunday.

Meanwhile, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on all sides to put the interests of Syrians above their own.

"Children and women in particular have borne the brunt of this fighting and it is time now to see the end of the fighting and other human rights abuses that have dominated the war," he said.

More than 250,000 people have died and 11 million have fled their homes in almost five years of civil war in Syria. The violence has also been the biggest driver behind Europe's migration crisis.

What hope for the talks?

International system has failed Syria

The story of the conflict

The Saudi-backed opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) finally agreed late on Friday night that they would come to the talks in Geneva - hours after the Syrian government delegation had already arrived and held preliminary talks with Mr Mistura.

Geneva peace talks

Who is attending? Delegates from the Syrian government and the main opposition bloc, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). Other opposition figures have been invited as advisers.

Who is not attending? Syrian Kurdish group the PYD (regarded by Turkey as a terror group); so-called Islamic State (IS); al-Nusra Front.

What is being discussed? A possible ceasefire; release of prisoners; aid deliveries to the worst-hit areas; the threat from IS.

Upon his arrival in Geneva, HNC spokesman Salim Muslet said they wanted the release of women and children from government jails, the end to air strikes and aid to be allowed into besieged towns - but that they were not a precondition of talks.

"We're always optimistic but the problem is we're facing a dictatorship there in Syria. Really, if he's willing to solve these problems, we wouldn't have seen these crimes in Syria, these massacres," he told reporters.

But Riad Hijab, the head of the HNC who is not in Geneva, warned in an online post that the delegation's presence "will not be justified" if the Syrian government continues to "commit these crimes".

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The so-called proximity talks are expected to last six months, with delegations sitting in separate rooms and UN officials shuttling between them.

The immediate priorities of the talks are:

  • a broad ceasefire
  • humanitarian aid deliveries
  • halting the threat posed by IS

But the ultimate aim is a peace settlement that includes a transitional period ending with elections, in line with a UN Security Council resolution approved last month.

The last talks aimed at ending the conflict broke down in February 2014 after only two rounds. The UN blamed the government for refusing to discuss an opposition demand for Mr Assad to step down.

Despite little sign of a change in that stance, the rise of the IS group prompted the US and Russia to step up their efforts to get the warring parties back to the negotiating table.

Mr de Mistura, in a video message to the Syrian people on Thursday, said the talks could be the last chance for peace and must not be allowed to fail.

Media captionNick Bryant says more than half a million people need food and medical supplies

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