U.N. Syria envoy says talks have set agenda for progress on peace

By Tom Miles, John Irish and Stephanie Nebehay
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General view at the start of a meeting between UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and Syrian government delegation during Syria peace talks in Geneva

General view at the start of a meeting between UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, 2nd R, and Syrian government delegation during Syria peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Xu Jinquan/Pool

By Tom Miles, John Irish and Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria's first U.N.-led peace talks in almost a year ended on Friday without breakthrough but the United Nations mediator said the warring parties now had a clear agenda to pursue a political solution to the country's six-year-long conflict.

Both sides could point to small victories. The opposition said that the question of political transition was seriously addressed for the first time, while U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said counter-terrorism - an issue pushed by President Bashar al-Assad's delegation - had been added to the agenda.

"What I saw ... gives me some feeling that we are moving in the right direction," de Mistura told reporters at the end of eight days of talks, adding that he aimed to hold another round of indirect negotiations later this month.

He said counter-terrorism had been added as a "fourth basket" to the talks, alongside efforts to establish a "credible, inclusive government", drafting a new constitution and holding free and fair elections.

In theory, those issues are supposed to be addressed in a six-month time frame, but peace talks in Geneva have achieved little since they were first convened just over three years ago.

"I believe...and expect that the sides should now pursue a framework agreement containing an agreed political package so that a negotiated transitional political process can be implemented as indicated by (U.N.) Resolution 2254," de Mistura said.

Assad's chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja'afari left the talks without speaking to reporters. "He has terrorism, but has to engage on transition," one Western diplomat said.

Terrorism has been a mantra for the Syrian government, which regards all the rebels as terrorists, and described members of the negotiating delegation on Thursday as terrorists backed by Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

De Mistura said the United Nations recognized only two terrorist groups: Islamic State and the former Nusra front, once an al Qaeda affiliate. Neither is part of the U.N. peace process.

MINIMAL EXPECTATIONS

The talks aim to reach a political solution to a conflict which erupted in March 2011 and has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced many millions. They were convened last week with minimal expectations for success.

"Although we are closing this round without clear results ... I can say this time was more positive," chief opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri said.

"It was the first time we discussed in acceptable depth the future of Syria and the future of political transition in Syria.

The opposition says that "political transition" means an end to nearly 50 years of Assad family rule, something the government has ruled out giving away through negotiation.

Russia, seen as holding the balance of power, met both sides behind the scenes during the talks.

Late on Thursday, Russian diplomats met representatives of Syrian armed groups, diplomats and opposition sources said, the second such contact in the past few days.

Despite those contacts, Russia accused the main opposition of trying to sabotage the talks by refusing to unite with two smaller dissident groups which have no military muscle but have Moscow's blessing as opposition voices.

Creating a unified opposition delegation is seen as the key to holding face-to-face talks, but de Mistura said he was not yet ready to do so.

A Western diplomat said Russia's push to unify the opposition was an underhand tactic.

“Russia is trying to do that to destabilize the talks. They insist on the opposition becoming one. This is a tactic to weaken the process. I hope that Staffan can push back on it."

The scope of the negotiation is much narrower than a year ago, when de Mistura also had to hear demands for a ceasefire and release of prisoners. A shaky ceasefire has been in place since December and separate talks in Kazakhstan, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, are dealing with military matters.

De Mistura said the government delegation put forward a suggestion on exchanging prisoners and abducted people, which should be taken up in Astana.

A new round of Astana talks is due on March 14, and Russian officials have said the Geneva negotiations could resume on March 20.

(Additional reporting by Yara Abi Nader; Editing by Dominic Evans)