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Rich in symbols, U.N.-backed Syria peace talks resume for the first time in years

The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, addresses reporters in Geneva, where a new round of Syria peace talks is underway.
The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, addresses reporters in Geneva, where a new round of Syria peace talks is underway.
(Martial Trezzini / Associated Press)

Syria’s opposing sides met face-to-face for the first time in United Nations mediation in three years on Thursday, with the U.N. envoy citing a historic chance to end a conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead, displaced millions and fomented a proxy war by foreign powers.

In a ceremony rich in symbolism, and as violent clashes continued in Syria, Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, convened government and opposition diplomats for a new United Nations effort to cobble together a political process to end nearly six years of war.

“The Syrian people all want an end to this conflict, and you all know it,” he said in a cavernous U.N. assembly hall, addressing the warring sides. “They are waiting for a relief of their own suffering, and the dream of a new road out of this nightmare to a real and normal future in dignity.”

He took note of the presence of diplomats from the International Syria Support Group, which unites regional and world powers and is led by the United States and Russia. But Washington has been in political flux, and De Mistura has said there’s uncertainty about the Syria strategy of the new Trump administration.

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Earlier Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin — arguably the most potent international power broker in Syria’s conflict — voiced hope for the success of a political settlement and said it would help defeat the “terrorist malaise.” Two U.N.-designated terrorist groups — Islamic State and the Front for the Conquest of Syria, the Al Qaeda branch in the country formerly known as Al Nusra Front — have been excluded from the Geneva talks.

A cease-fire deal crafted by Russia, whose air power has helped Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces regain key territory, and by Turkey, which supports the Western-backed rebels, has provided the backdrop to the Geneva talks. But that truce is being violated on a daily basis.

Cracking through a lack of trust between the two delegations is a primary obstacle, De Mistura told reporters, saying he doesn’t expect miracles. He also acknowledged “work to be done” to unite the fragmented opposition.

De Mistura says he plans to hold separate talks with the two sides Friday, trying to devise a plan that could lead to talks over governance, a new constitution and elections sought by the U.N. Security Council.

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But the diplomatic initiative in the Swiss city — known as Geneva IV after three rounds that failed amid renewed fighting last year — comes at a time of new violence in Syria.

“We face an uphill task. It will not be easy. There is a lot of tension and there is a lot suffering that everyone has been bearing, but we must apply ourselves to this task,” De Mistura said. “We do know what will happen if we fail once again: more deaths, more suffering, more atrocities, more terrorism, more refugees.”


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