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Syrian government delegation joins Geneva talks under pressure to negotiate

GENEVA: The Syrian government delegation led by U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari arrived on Friday for their first session of the latest round of peace talks in Geneva, where they faced pressure to negotiate terms for a political transition.

They showed up six days after U.N. 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. There was little sign of the government’s main ally Russia dialling down its military support.

A previous round of peace talks ended on March 24, with de Mistura issuing a document on 12 common guiding principles and vowing to focus the next round on a political transition that would draw a firm line under the five-year-old civil war.

The main opposition delegation, the High Negotiations Committee, has been in Geneva for two days. Its spokesman 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.

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.

“We in Syria are discussing de Mistura’s document with all seriousness. Our delegation goes to Geneva with the answer to the questions put by de Mistura.”

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 senior Western 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.”

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