UN urges negotiating Syria rivals to avoid insults

Tension was palpable at opening of talks last Thursday evening

GENEVA - A ban on mobile phones, recording devices and "offensive language": the ground rules handed out at Syrian talks reflect the high tension in the corridors of Geneva, where peace is a long way from anyone's lips.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura issued the orders to Syrian government and opposition negotiators gathered for talks which are showing little sign of progress, overshadowed by more slaughter on the ground.
"Respect the others who are present in these proceedings. No-one has the right to question the legitimacy of others," he wrote in the one-page ground rules.
"Use appropriate language and behaviour, and avoid making offensive, degrading, inflammatory or personal attacks, in and out of meetings," he added.
The fact that such obvious rules have to be spelled out shows the deep personal animosity and bitterness between the two sides, after six years of bloody conflict and several previous rounds of UN talks which went nowhere.
The tension was palpable at the opening of the talks last Thursday evening at the UN offices in Geneva.
The regime's chief negotiator, Syria's envoy to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari, sat with his delegation across the room from the opposition team, led by cardiologist Nasr al-Hariri.
Between the two of them, the usually smiling de Mistura called solemnly on both sides to show "historical responsibility" and seize the opportunity to bring peace to their war-scarred country.
"Jaafari looked defiant, his arms crossed, he was staring us down, literally," said a western diplomat. The regime delegation left the room immediately at the end of the ceremony.
On the opposition side, a diplomatic incident was only narrowly avoided.
Furious that de Mistura had invited the so-called Moscow and Cairo delegations, members of the main opposition group the High Negotiating Committee (HNC) threatened to boycott the ceremony.
"There was strong pressure from the special envoys of the countries which back the opposition. British, Germans, French, Emiratis, the Danes, Swedes and Turks... they pushed them to take part in the ceremony," said an opposition source.
- Pressure, 'chaotic'-
Because in the corridors of the UN's Palais des Nations in Geneva, diplomats from all countries involved are watching closely, and advising their respective protegees.
On the opposition side are most western and Arab countries. For the Damascus regime, their powerful Russian and Iranian allies.
In the first camp, US special envoy Michael Ratney, named by the Obama administration, is still here. But most of his colleagues are wondering what new President Donald Trump's stance on Syria is going to be.
Apart from anything else, advising the opposition "is not always simple -- it's all a bit chaotic," said one of the foreign diplomats.
The HNC, the main opposition which represents both political and armed groups, is often divided over how to respond to a Damascus side which gives no ground.
For the regime, its big ally Moscow spoke on the day the talks opened.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that Moscow's aim was to "stabilise the legitimate authority" and strike a "decisive blow" against terrorism.
Putin's special envoy in Geneva said that wanting to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office, as demanded by the opposition, was "absurd".
And after Saturday's suicide attacks in Syria's third city Homs which targeted the regime's intelligence services, the Damascus delegation repeated that the Geneva talks had to give priority to fighting terrorism.
The opposition immediately accused the regime of "stalling" the talks, using the Homs attack to avoid talking about political transition.
"We always come back to the same pattern," said a western diplomat, referring to previous rounds of talks early last year which failed due to the same problems.
It is against this grim background that veteran UN envoy de Mistura, under intense pressure, is trying to nudge both sides towards substantial discussions.
"He is trying to avoid emotional dramas. He is constantly trying to balance everything, while everyone is getting on his back. It is very difficult," conceded the diplomat.