Syria ‘proximity’ talks to kick off in Geneva on Friday
GENEVA - A new round of peace talks to end the Syrian conflict will begin in Geneva on Friday, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said, after a delay over who will represent the country's fractious opposition.
Negotiations had been scheduled to open on Monday, but de Mistura told reporters "a stalemate" over the makeup of the delegations had forced the date back.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has piled pressure on Syrian opposition figures to attend, part of a renewed diplomatic push to end nearly five years of war in Syria.
De Mistura said invitations to the delegates were due to be sent out on Tuesday.
The so-called "proximity talks" are scheduled to last six months, with the first round lasting between two and three weeks, he said, adding he expected to do "a lot of shuttling" between the sides.
"We are all feeling... the time has come to try hard to produce an outcome," De Mistura told reporters in Geneva.
"That is why we have been careful and extremely... thorough in wanting to make sure that when and if we start, we start at least on the right foot," he said, adding: "It would be uphill anyway."
An earlier statement from Russia's foreign ministry said Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had called on De Mistura to set a start date "as quickly as possible," underscoring the growing urgency among global powers to end the crisis.
Adding to the global angst over the Islamic state group, the EU's police agency Europol on Monday warned that the jihadists were expected to focus more on Europe in coming attacks.
Last month, several key opposition bodies, including rebel groups, formed a coalition known as the High Negotiations Committee to participate in the mooted talks.
But the coalition excludes Syria's main Kurdish party and a range of other opposition figures.
Moscow has sought to have some of those excluded participate in the talks either within a broad opposition delegation, or in a second opposition delegation to the negotiations.
But the High Negotiations Committee accuses regime ally Russia of trying to stack the opposition delegation with figures close to the regime, and has threatened to boycott the talks if other opposition representatives are invited.
Over the weekend, Kerry met members of the Committee in Saudi Arabia to urge them to participate, warning the opposition risked "losing friends" if it boycotted.
"This talk means a halt to political and military support to the opposition," Committee member Fuad Aliko said.
He described the meeting with the top US diplomat as "neither comfortable, nor positive" and said Kerry used "all his efforts to insist on the necessity of us attending."
Aliko said it would take a final decision on whether to attend the talks in a meeting on Tuesday.
De Mistura declined to detail the opposition figures due to receive invitations, saying only that negotiations should be "as inclusive as possible."
Securing a ceasefire and space to deliver humanitarian aid to suffering Syrians will be among the first priorities, he said.
The renewed diplomatic efforts to end Syria's war, which has killed more than 260,000 people and displaced half the country's population, come as the conflict approaches its sixth year.
It follows an unprecedented influx of migrants and refugees into Europe last year, and the rise of ISIS.
On Monday, Europol's chief warned ISIS "had developed a new combat style capability to carry out a campaign of large-scale terrorist attacks on a global stage -- with a particular focus in Europe."
The agency said ISIS was preparing attacks on "soft targets, because of the impact it generates."
The group has already shown its ability to strike in the heart of Europe, with the deadly November 13 Paris attacks in which 130 people were killed and 350 wounded.
Despite the ramped-up international efforts to resolve Syria's crisis, hopes for the talks remain modest.
In addition to the opposition's disarray, analysts say Syria's regime has been emboldened by Russia's military intervention on its behalf.
Moscow began air strikes in Syria on September 30, saying it was targeting ISIS and other "terrorist groups."
Opposition forces and activists accuse it of focusing on moderate and Islamist rebels, and of killing civilians, an allegation Moscow dismisses as "absurd."
On Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said 16 people including 11 Islamist fighters had been killed in ballistic missile fire in Syria's northwestern Idlib province.
The Britain-based monitor said it was unclear if the missile had been fired by Russian or Syria forces, and that members of Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front were among the dead.