U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will send his Syria peace negotiator Staffan de Mistura to a conference in Russia next week, a spokesman said Saturday, despite the Syrian opposition’s boycott of the meeting.
Guterres “is confident that the congress in Sochi will be an important contribution” to reviving the peace talks held under U.N. auspices in Geneva, a U.N. spokesman said in a statement.
Russia has long sought U.N. participation in the conference opening Monday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to lend credibility to its diplomatic efforts to end the six-year war.
Hours earlier, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura ended a ninth round of U.N.-sponsored talks in Vienna, with no sign of progress toward a peace deal.
“I share the immense frustration of millions of Syrians inside and outside the country at the lack of a political settlement to date,” de Mistura said.
U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric indicated that Guterres had received assurances that the Sochi conference would not seek to sideline the U.N. talks.
Guterres was briefed by de Mistura on the outcome of the Vienna talks, and has taken into account a statement from Russia that the result of the Sochi conference “would be brought to Geneva as a contribution to the intra-Syrian talks process under the auspices of the United Nations,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The U.N. chief has “decided to accept the invitation of the Russian Federation to send a representative to attend the Sochi Congress” and has asked de Mistura to go, he added.
Russia has invited more than 1,500 delegates to the two-day conference that the West views with suspicion.
— Syria Opposition SNC (@SyrianHNC_en) January 27, 2018
In Vienna, the Syrian Negotiation Commission announced it would not be attending the Sochi conference.
The opposition coalition fears that Russia will push a peace deal that will leave President Bashar al-Assad in power.
The Russian foreign ministry welcomed Guterres’ decision, and said the Vienna talks had “focused in particular on the problems of constitutional reform” – a process that could determine whether or how Assad remains in power.
“On these issues, a mutual agreement was reached between the Russian side and the U.N. representatives, on the sidelines of the Vienna meeting,” said a foreign ministry statement issued in Moscow.
On the ground, Syrian forces have pressed on with an offensive in Idlib launched in late December.
Syrian government forces were on the defensive in the first few years of the war, but since Russia militarily intervened in 2015 they have regained the upper hand.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Britain and France have put forward a proposal that would involve strengthening the role of Syria’s prime minister – at the expense of Assad’s authority, according to a leaked document circulated online.
Syrian government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari told reporters in Vienna it was “tantamount to a black comedy” that these countries were seeking to shape Syria’s political future.
“All of them have participated in the bloodshed of the Syrian people,” he said of the five nations, blasting the United States as the country “that created ISIS,” and adding that Saudi Arabia was anything but a “beacon of freedom in the east.”
Last weekend, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch against northern Syria’s Efrin which is controlled by the predominantly Kurdish YPG, marking a new escalation in the conflict. That development has raised tensions between Turkey – which along with Iran backs the Russian conference in Sochi – and the United States, which has supported the Kurdish militias in the campaign against Islamic State.
With reporting from AFP