Vienna peace talks ‘last hope’ for Syria peace
VIENNA - The United Nations embarked on fresh efforts Thursday to jump-start Syrian peace talks that Western countries and the opposition fear are being undermined by a separate Russian diplomatic push.
The two days of talks in Vienna come after eight previous rounds in Geneva, during which the two sides failed to even meet each other.
The previous attempts stumbled in particular over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the government delegation refusing to meet the opposition face-to-face until they drop demands that he leaves office.
The Syrian government's top negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari made no comment as he arrived at the UN in Vienna to meet the world body's special envoy Staffan de Mistura.
The main opposition group, the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), said it would sit down for separate talks with the envoy at 4:00 pm (1500 GMT).
De Mistura said on Wednesday that the negotiations came at a "very, very critical moment".
Nasr al-Hariri from the SNC said the discussions would be "a real test for all the sides".
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said meanwhile in Paris that the talks were the "last hope" for reaching a political solution to a seven-year conflict that has claimed more than 340,000 lives.
He highlighted a "considerable worsening of the humanitarian situation" in Afrin -- where Turkey has launched an operation against Kurdish fighters -- as well as in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta.
The Turkish intervention, its second in a conflict that has drawn in multiple world powers, has heightened tensions with Ankara's NATO ally the United States, which has backed the Kurdish militants in their battle against the Islamic State group.
Ankara, in contrast, views the Kurdish YPG fighters as a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.
- Parallel peace talks -
The Vienna talks come ahead of a separate peace conference next Tuesday in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, backed by Russia, Iran and Turkey.
The three key regional players have been sponsoring parallel peace talks since the start of last year, which have fuelled concerns that the Kremlin is looking to sideline the UN.
"The Russians have done everything to weaken the Geneva process. They want to short-circuit it and be the only sponsor of the diplomatic process," said Hasni Abidi from the CERMAM think-tank in Geneva.
The focus in Sochi will be on hammering out a new constitution, according to the opposition, something that de Mistura also wants discussed in Vienna.
While Assad's government has said it will go to Sochi, the SNC has not yet decided, even after a recent visit to Moscow.
- Russia under pressure -
A Western diplomatic source said that if Moscow wanted its own peace talks in Sochi to be successful, it must push its ally Assad into accepting the need for a political transition, as agreed by the UN Security Council in 2015.
"This is the moment for the Russians to be banging their fists on the table," the source said.
"The opposition has no reason to go to Sochi if the Russians don't win any commitments from Damascus."
A suspected chemical weapons attack by the regime on the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus left at least 21 people with breathing problems on Monday, prompting a sharp US warning to Russia to rein in its ally.
But the war has turned in Assad's favour since Russia became involved militarily in September 2015.
Russian-backed Syrian forces have also dealt severe blows to IS, whose self-proclaimed "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria has largely collapsed.