GENEVA The United Nations is no longer using the phrase "political transition" to describe the goals of next week's Syria peace talks, in a potentially major concession to negotiators representing President Bashar al-Assad.
"Political transition" is a phrase understood by the opposition to mean a removal of Assad or at least an erosion of his powers. But his government has rejected any suggestion that it could be on the table, and at previous peace talks in Geneva his negotiators consistently tried to steer away from it.
Yara Sharif, spokeswoman for U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura, initially told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva on Friday that the talks, due to start on Feb. 23, would address the political transition.
"I think, yes, you can use the word 'political transition'. It is going to be a focus I guess as it has been in the past," she said in response to a reporter's question.
But she later sent an email to clarify her comment.
"This morning at the briefing I was asked about the intra-Syrian negotiations and whether the issue of political transition would be discussed," she said.
"For clarification purposes, please note that the negotiations will be entirely guided by (U.N.) Security Council Resolution 2254, which talks specifically about governance, a new constitution and elections in Syria."
The December 2015 resolution was unanimously adopted as the basis for peace talks, which ran fitfully through the first months of 2016 but never resumed after the end of April.
The resolution says the U.N. Secretary-General should convene formal negotiations on "a political transition process on an urgent basis... with a view to a lasting political settlement of the crisis". It also refers to previous international agreements which called for a transition.
But its description of the political process contains no mention of the phrase, setting out the aims as a new constitution, free and fair elections administered under supervision of the United Nations, and transparent and accountable governance.
The last set of U.N.-led Syria talks in Geneva ended in April last year, with de Mistura setting out a summary of what had been agreed so far and what next steps were needed.
"No one is doubting any more that there is an urgent need for a true and credible political transition," the U.N. envoy said at the time. "You remember when the word transition, at least in certain area, was taboo? Not any more."
(Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Dominic Evans)