GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura handed a working paper on procedural issues to delegations at Syrian peace talks on Friday, but there appeared little prospect of them meeting directly soon.
Opposing sides in the war came face-to-face at the U.N. for the first time in three years at an opening ceremony on Thursday, to hear mediator Staffan de Mistura urge them to cooperate. Tensions were palpable among participants.
De Mistura, looking to lay the foundations for negotiations to end the six-year-old conflict, held bilateral meetings with the delegations on Friday to establish a plan for talks that could run into early March.
In a short statement to reporters after more than two hours of discussions with the U.N. envoy, the government’s chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja‘afari said they had discussed only the format for the coming days.
“At the end of the meeting de Mistura gave us a paper and we agreed to study this paper. We shall inform him of our position,” he said.
He corrected an interpreter who described it as a “document”, and gave no details of what it said. He took no questions.
The opposition delegation, which is not fully under one umbrella, said it had also received the paper.
“There is a paper about the procedural issues and some ideas to begin the political process,” lead negotiator Nasr al-Hariri told reporters.
Hariri stressed the opposition’s priority was to begin negotiations on a political transitional governing body, suggesting it would not back down on its demands that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.
“We have heard from Mr de Mistura positive ideas and suggestions, I believe he is more enthusiastic to be engaged seriously in political transition,” he said.
“Political transition” is a phrase used by the opposition to mean a removal of Assad or at least an erosion of his powers. His government has rejected any suggestion that it could be on the table, and at previous peace talks his negotiators have tried to steer away from it.
De Mistura’s chief of staff Michael Contet said the talks would centre on U.N. Security Council resolution 2254, which calls for a new constitution, U.N.-supervised elections and transparent and accountable governance.
“It will be a long, difficult process and an early public breakthrough should not be expected,” he told reporters.
He added that it appeared difficult for now to bring the two sides face to face.
At the last Geneva talks, 10 months ago, de Mistura had to shuttle between the parties who never met in the same room. The negotiations were suspended as the war escalated.
“Staffan said recently it was his ambition to have direct talks, but I can’t see that happening,” a senior Western diplomat said of the new Geneva initiative.
“My guess is it will be like last year, proximity talks.”
Additional reporting by Tom Miles, Yara Abi Nader and Laila Bassam; Editing by Andrew Roche