GENEVA – Syria’s chief government negotiator sought on Friday to steer UN peace talks away from the issue of a political transition, saying his immediate focus at the start of a new round was to submit amendments to a framework document for the talks.
The Syrian government, buoyed by Russian and Iranian military support, arrived in Geneva six days after UN mediator Staffan de Mistura had hoped to begin the negotiations, and with increased fighting near Aleppo threatening to undermine the shaky truce that underpins the talks.
The previous round of indirect negotiations ended on March 24, with de Mistura issuing a document on 12 common guiding principles and vowing to shift the focus to a political transition to resolve the five-year-old civil war.
But after almost two hours with de Mistura, Bashar Ja’afari told reporters that he had given the UN envoy amendments to his document and would wait for him and his team to “study in-depth” the paper over the weekend and submit it to other groups.
“We agreed with de Mistura that we will once again discuss our proposal the next time we will meet on Monday,” he said. Ja’afari declined to answer questions, and de Mistura cancelled a planned news briefing.
The main opposition delegation, the High Negotiations Committee, has been in Geneva for two days and was scheduled to meet de Mistura after he met Ja’afari.
The opposition told Reuters on Thursday that it was willing to share seats on a transitional governing body with members of Syria’s government, but President Bashar al-Assad must leave power and it was now time to discuss a transition.
Assad has rejected the idea of a transitional governing body, saying instead he could broaden the government to include what he described as opposition and independent figures.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said Assad’s future was not up for negotiation in Geneva or elsewhere, Russia’s TASS news agency quoted him as saying in Damascus.
“This issue should be decided by the Syrian people themselves in a democratic procedure. And they will never discuss it with anybody (else),” Zoubi said.
Rebel commanders from Syria said on Friday in Geneva they still backed the talks, but accused the Damascus government of trying to shatter the ceasefire deal and urged world powers to judge whether it remained viable.
A senior Western diplomat close to the talks said it was clear that Syria’s government had no intention to negotiate in good faith. “The regime is doing everything it can to kill the negotiations,” the diplomat said.
“If there was one moment when it shouldn’t launch an offensive (in the Aleppo region) then it really shouldn’t be the day before the government delegation arrives in Geneva.”
The diplomat said the Assad government was refusing to talk about transition.
“De Mistura insists it is the only agenda and that the 12 points from the previous round are done and dusted. Let’s see how he plays it, but he can’t give the regime a window to get out of this.
All of this took place amid escalating fighting between government forces and insurgents in northern Aleppo province that has killed 34 fighters on both sides over the past 24 hours.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said of those killed, 14 were pro-government fighters and 20 were militants, including members of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate known as the Nusra Front.
The al-Qaeda branch and its more powerful rival, the ISIS group, are not part of a ceasefire that went into effect at the end of February. The US and Russia-backed truce has held in most of Syria, except in the north, where it has practically collapsed. The Nusra Front is deeply rooted in the areas in northern Syria controlled by opposition forces, complicating the oversight of the truce.
ISIS militants have clashed with both rival insurgents and pro-government forces in Aleppo, making a wide advance on opposition-held territory along the Turkish border, the Observatory said Thursday.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said Turkish border guards fired on hundreds of Syrian civilians fleeing the ISIS onslaught on Thursday and heading for a wall at the border. The rights group urged Ankara to allow thousands of Syrians fleeing to cross into Turkey to seek protection.
“As civilians flee ISIS fighters, Turkey is responding with live ammunition instead of compassion,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The whole world is talking about fighting ISIS, and yet those most at risk of becoming victims of its horrific abuses are trapped on the wrong side of a concrete wall,” he added.
Turkish officials say they were aware of the report but had no immediate response. There was no information whether any of the civilians were hurt in the shooting.
The latest ISIS advance has displaced 30,000 already-displaced civilians north of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, the provincial capital.
The Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee, which is negotiating in Geneva, has accused the Syrian government of over 2,000 breaches of the ceasefire in deadly attacks on opposition areas.
The head of the Syrian opposition delegation said on Friday the government was sending a strong message that it did not want to negotiate a peace deal in Geneva and was seeking a military solution after launching an assault on Aleppo.
“Today, as usual the regime since early morning and as before every round of talks, it sends a strong message that it doesn’t want a political solution, but a military solution that will bring destruction to the whole country,” Asaad al-Zoubi said, referring to intensified fighting in the northern city.
He said government amendments made to de Mistura earlier in the day on guiding principles from a previous round of talks showed Damascus was “not serious about the political solution” and “divorced from reality.”
De Mistura has said he hopes for a substantive round of “proximity talks” on a transitional government to end the war. The two warring Syrian sides do not actually talk to one another in Geneva but the UN envoy shuttles between them.
This round of talks began Wednesday in Geneva but the government said it was delayed because of parliament elections that were held this week in government-controlled areas of Syria. The opposition has dismissed the balloting as a sham and said it could further undermine the peace talks.
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