Syrian government holds off on attending UN peace talks

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called the Syria crisis "one of the worst in the history of the UN"

Syrian peace talks set to open in Geneva this week hit a roadblock when President Bashar al-Assad's government refused to confirm it was attending and instead told the United Nations that no delegation would be arriving on Monday.

The eighth round of UN-led talks, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, was seen as an opportunity to achieve progress toward ending the devastating six-year war after the opposition sent a united delegation to Geneva.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, however, told the Security Council that during weekend talks with his deputy, "the government did not yet confirm its participation in Geneva but indicated that we would be hearing from them soon."

"Last night, we received a message that the government would not travel to Geneva today," De Mistura said via videoconference from the Swiss city.

Assad said last week, after a meeting in Russia with President Vladimir Putin, that he was ready for talks.

"Naturally we know, and indeed expect, that the government will be on its way shortly," De Mistura said, "particularly in light of President Assad's commitment to President Putin when they met in Sochi."

Amid the uncertainty over the Geneva talks, Russia has proposed holding a "congress" to bring together the government and opposition in Sochi, the Russian resort city on the Black Sea. But so far it has set no date for that gathering.

Moscow is seeking UN support for the Sochi meeting, but De Mistura told the council that it was "premature" for him to declare his backing for the initiative.

- US, France back Geneva talks -

Western powers are concerned that Russia, which has sought a leading role in the peace process, will carve out a settlement that will largely favor its ally, Assad.

US President Donald Trump said following a phone conversation with French leader Emmanuel Macron that the two agreed the Geneva talks were the "only legitimate forum for achieving a political solution in Syria."

Turning to Syria's second key ally, Iran, Trump and Macron "also stressed the need to confront and reverse Iran's destabilizing activities in Syria," a White House statement said, without elaborating.

The rocky start to the talks came as the Syrian army pounded Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, killing 18 people, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The regime's bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, one of the last remaining opposition strongholds, has killed more than 100 people in the past two weeks, according to the Observatory.

After meeting in Riyadh last week, Syria's disparate opposition groups agreed to send a united delegation to Geneva, a move that was seen as a boost to prospects for a breakthrough.

Despite the united front, Assad's delegation would, if it decides to attend, come to the negotiating table with the upper hand, since government forces have made gains in offensives backed by Russian military might.

Around two-thirds of Syrians now live in regime-held areas that make up 55 percent of the country.

- Potential for real talks -

Following a closed-door session, Italian Ambassador Sebastiano Cardi, who holds the council presidency, told reporters that there was strong backing for the UN-led negotiations.

"There is no military solution," said Cardi. "The meeting will start tomorrow so we really hope that all parties, including the Syrian government, will be present."

The Geneva talks are to focus on holding UN-supervised elections and drafting a new constitution. Opposition demands for Assad to step down appear to have dropped off the agenda.

"We will not accept any preconditions from either party," said De Mistura.

"This crisis -- one of the worst in the history of the UN -- now has the potential, the real potential to move toward a genuine political process," he said.

De Mistura will be meeting with the ambassadors from the council's five permanent members -- Britain, France, China, Russia and the United States -- in Geneva on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming talks.

More than 340,000 people have died in the six-year war, half of the population has been displaced and the country lies in ruin after years of bombing campaigns and fierce ground assaults.

Syria's reconstruction is expected to cost $250 billion, said the UN envoy.