Russia asks Syria to halt bombing during UN peace talks

Rouba EL HUSSEINI
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Fighting in Syria has continued in the runup to the Geneva peace talks

Russia has called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop his bombing campaign while peace talks take place this week, but a political breakthrough on the six-year war remains unlikely, the UN's envoy said Wednesday.

Staffan de Mistura's comments came on the eve of a new round of talks in Geneva between negotiators from Syria's regime and the opposition after a 10-month hiatus.

Persistent violence and deadlock over the country's political future, notably that of Assad, remain major hurdles.

"Russia announced to everyone... and to myself that they have formally asked the Syrian government to silence their own skies during the talks," de Mistura told reporters.

But just hours after rival delegations arrived for the resumption of the UN-brokered negotiations, there seemed limited ground for progress on making peace.

"Am I expecting a breakthrough? No, I am not expecting a breakthrough," de Mistura said, noting that "momentum" toward further talks was likely the best that can be hoped for.

The government delegation is headed by Syria's UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari and the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) is led by cardiologist Nasr al-Hariri and lawyer Mohammad Sabra.

There has been speculation that other opposition groups with a more favourable view of Assad would be incorporated into the main rebel delegation.

Asked about the precise composition of the opposition camp, de Mistura said only that he would provide more details on Thursday.

The ground -- both in territory and diplomatically -- has shifted since the last UN-sponsored talks broke up in April 2016, and the rebels are in a significantly weaker position.

The army has recaptured the rebel bastion of eastern Aleppo and the United States, once staunchly opposed to Assad, has said it is reassessing every aspect of its Syria policy under President Donald Trump.

But the toughest issues remain similar to a year ago.

- 'Bloody message' -

The opposition quit the last round in protest at escalating bloodshed and on Wednesday warned that ceasefire violations were once again a problem.

Failures "in consolidating the ceasefire" was a clear obstacle to dialogue, said HNC adviser Yehya Aridi.

The latest truce was brokered in late December by opposition supporter Turkey and regime-backer Russia ahead of separate negotiations that also involved Iran in Kazakhstan.

The deal has reduced violence but fighting flared again this week including a government bombing campaign on rebel territory around Damascus.

The HNC charged that Assad was trying to send "a bloody message" before the talks resume.

But in a first, the HNC said it wanted face-to-face discussions with government representatives.

"We ask for direct negotiations... It would save time and be proof of seriousness instead of negotiating in (separate) rooms," Salem al-Meslet, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) umbrella group, told AFP.

During three previous rounds of talks in Geneva last year, the two sides never sat down at the same table, instead leaving UN mediator Staffan de Mistura to shuttle between them.

- Focus on 'political transition' -

A bitter dispute over Assad's fate also continues to divide the camps.

The HNC has insisted he must leave office as part of any deal, while Damascus has said the president's future is not open for negotiation.

HNC spokesman Ahmed Ramadan insisted the opposition were not the only ones eager to see Assad go.

"The Assad issue isalready decided, not only for us but also for many international actors," he told reporters.

Even Damascus's main ally Moscow had told opposition members it was "not concerned by Bashar Assad and his future, but by the destiny of Syria and the future of the Syrian state," he said.

De Mistura's office earlier said that the talks remain focused on "political transition".

For the UN, that term can include a broad range of scenarios but the opposition sees it as implying Assad's removal.

Forcing the Syrian president from power had been the stated goal of Barack Obama's administration but Trump's election has muddied the US stance.

Trump has said that defeating the Islamic State group is Washington's top priority in the region and that the US would be narrowly focused on American interests.

But in a sign that Washington still stands behind the opposition, US Syria envoy Michael Ratney met with HNC advisors on Wednesday.

The UN envoy acknowledged that the change of leadership in Washington had injected new uncertainties into the peace process.

"I'm not criticising. I'm not complaining," he told reporters but added that all camps were looking "forward to seeing what their strategy is."