GENEVA/BEIRUT – The first Syria peace talks for two years were a “complete failure” before they started on Friday, a Western diplomat said, after the United Nations announced it would press ahead with them despite an opposition boycott.
Opponents of President Bashar al-Assad said they were far more concerned with fending off a Russian-backed military onslaught, with civilians reported to be fleeing as the Syrian army and allied militia tried to capture a suburb of Damascus and finish off rebels defending it.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has invited the Syrian government and an opposition umbrella group to Geneva for “proximity talks”, in which they would meet in separate rooms.
But so far the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has refused to attend, insisting it wanted an end to air strikes and sieges of towns before talks can start. The boycott defies Washington, which has urged the opposition to take up the “historic opportunity” for the talks, without preconditions.
A U.N. statement said de Mistura would open the talks as scheduled on Friday by meeting the government delegation headed by Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations. Meetings with “other participants” would take place “subsequently” it said, without giving details.
“It is a complete failure,” said a Western diplomat, on condition of anonymity, describing the event as a boon for Assad’s government.
“They are completely off the hook. With whom are they going to talk? If you want to engage in negotiations, you have to have a partner. It’s a wonderful occasion for the regime to show they are willing.”
If opposition members do attend “they will be telling you they are coming in their personal capacity,” the diplomat said.
On Thursday the opposition HNC, which groups both armed and political opponents of Assad and has been meeting in Riyadh this week, said it would not attend the start of talks on Friday because it had not received convincing answers over its demand for goodwill steps such as a ceasefire.
Another major force, the Kurds who control much of northeast Syria and have proven one of the few groups capable of winning territory from ISIS fighters, were excluded from the talks after Turkey demanded they be kept away. The Kurds say their absence means the talks are doomed to fail.