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‘Golden opportunity missed’ at Syria peace talks – UN mediator

Geneva, Dec 14, 2017 (AFP) – The latest round of Syria peace talks in Geneva was a “golden opportunity missed,” the country’s U.N. mediator lamented Thursday, accusing the Syrian government of not really seeking dialogue.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters that “negotiations did not take place,” blaming in particular the government delegation’s apparent lack of interest in discussing anything besides the fight against “terrorism.”

His statement came at the end of the eighth round of indirect talks in Geneva between delegations representing Damascus and the opposition in Syria’s brutal, nearly seven-year war.

Seven previous rounds of talks mediated by De Mistura have also gone nowhere — and rival sides have not yet met face-to-face.

The U.N. mediator, who describes himself as a “chronic optimist” and highlights incremental progress where others see stalemate, had voiced hope that the eighth round that opened on November 28, would mark the first “real negotiation.”

But as the round fizzled out Thursday, he acknowledged he was “disappointed.”

“In spite of lots of efforts of my whole team, we did not have real negotiations. We did however have bilateral discussions,” he told reporters.

While the opposition, which was united in one delegation for the first time, had seriously engaged in all subjects on the table, he said “the government engaged sadly only on one subject… terrorism.”

Asked about the next steps, De Mistura said he would discuss the matter with U.N. chief Antonio Guterres and the U.N. Security Council, but that he hoped to organise a new round of talks next month.

A parallel process organised by Moscow and including fellow government ally Iran and rebel backer Turkey, is set to resume next week in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The Kremlin also hopes to convene a political congress in the Black Sea resort of Sochi which would bring together regime officials and the opposition to reinvigorate a hobbled peace process.

The opposition and Western diplomats are concerned that the Sochi meeting might be part of an effort by Moscow to circumvent the U.N. talks and impose a solution favourable to Assad.

De Mistura said he did not yet have enough information about the Sochi event to voice an opinion.

But he warned that “if the government is not willing to meet anyone who seems to have any type of different opinion and is not willing to discuss constitution and elections… I would be very concerned if I were those organising Sochi or any other initiatives.”

Earlier Thursday, the Syrian government’s top negotiator, Bashar al-Jaafari, meanwhile harshly criticised De Mistura, insisting he had “undermined” his position as mediator.

Speaking to reporters, Jaafari voiced outrage over an interview the mediator had with Swiss television late Wednesday, in which he appealed to Moscow to push for new Syrian elections.

“His statement undermined his mandate as a facilitator of the talks, which will affect the entire Geneva process,” Jaafari said.

Jaafari emphasised that while Syria’s government may have “allies, friends and people who fight with us on the ground,” it enjoys “the highest possible degree of sovereignty.”

“Therefore nobody can influence us,” he said, insisting that “what the envoy mistakenly said as a linguistic slip … does not reflect the relationship between us and Moscow.”

More than 340,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in March 2011 when protests against Assad’s rule sparked a brutal crackdown.

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