UN says Syria talks focus on 'political transition'

GENEVA - Upcoming Syria peace talks remain focused on negotiating a "political transition" in the war-ravaged country, the UN mediator's office said Tuesday, following concern the UN was backing away from that aim.
United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura had appeared reluctant in recent days to use the term "political transition" -- a term the opposition has linked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's removal from office.
De Mistura's chief of staff, Michael Contet, told reporters that Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for "negotiations on the political transition process", was still the basis for the talks set to begin in Geneva on Thursday.
Political transition and the opposition's insistence that Assad quit power have been a main sticking point in previous rounds of negotiations.
The Damascus government has categorically insisted that the president's fate is not up for discussion.
Since April 2016, when rival delegations were last in the Swiss city, the opposition has seen its position weakened substantially, as government forces have recaptured territory including the former rebel bastion of eastern Aleppo.
The opposition has also seen its biggest supporters -- the United States and Turkey -- show signs of shifting their positions, prompting concern in rebel ranks that their demands for Assad's departure may go unheard.
US President Donald Trump's administration has said it is "re-looking at everything" about its involvement in Syria, and Turkey last month said last month it was no longer "realistic" to insist on a solution to the Syria conflict that excluded Assad.
But Ahmad Ramadan, a spokesman for the opposition National Coalition, insisted to AFP that "the main issue in this round will be the political transition."
"The opposition delegation will focus on a proposition to form a transitional governance body," he said, adding that it would "present a complete plan on the topic including how it will be executed based on international resolutions."
Contet meanwhile said the discussions would centre on the "establishment of a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance," as well as "a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, and... free and fair elections."
His comments came as 40 human rights organisations called for the talks to focus heavily on ending the rampant rights violations that have characterised Syria's nearly six-year conflict, in more than 310,000 have been killed and millions more displaced.
"One of the main goals of the Geneva talks should be putting an end to the violations against Syrians who have faced bombing, chemical attacks, starvation, illegal detention, and more horrors," said Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch in a joint statement.