Syria Talks Are Declared Open as Mediator Begins Shuttle Diplomacy

By SOMINI SENGUPTA and ANNE BARNARD – FEB. 2, 2016 – NEW YORK TIMES – GENEVA — Declaring the official beginning of the first Syria peace talks in two years, the United Nations mediator said Monday that they must show results to the country’s suffering civilians and he called on the outside powers that are helping drive the conflict to take steps to reduce the violence.

The mediator, Staffan de Mistura, also said his most important objective now was to keep both sides talking — even if they are not talking directly to each other.Mr. de Mistura, a veteran Swedish-Italian diplomat with a four-decade career at the United Nations — and its third mediator in the Syria war — considered the negotiations underway after he met for two hours with members of Syria’s opposition delegation at the organization’s Geneva headquarters. He had met with the Syrian government representatives here on Friday.

“We feel that they have a very strong point, because this is the voice of the Syrian people asking for that,” he said. “When I meet the Syrian people they tell me, ‘Don’t just have a conference; have also something that we can see and touch while you are meeting in Geneva.’”The talks here are the first attempt since January and February of 2014 to hold negotiations to end a war that has left more than a quarter-million people dead, displaced millions and entangled regional and global military powers. But unlike in the previous talks, the United States and Russia seem to have shown far more interest now in seeking an end to the war.

Mr. de Mistura sought to emphasize on Monday that these outside powers must help make it possible for the Geneva negotiations to advance.“They actually indicated that when the actual talks would start, they themselves will start helping in ensuring that there would be a discussion about an overall cease-fire in the Syrian conflict,” Mr. de Mistura told reporters. “If that takes place, that would be the strongest message for all Syrian people, wherever they are, about changes.”

Mr. de Mistura said he would meet with the Syrian government delegation again on Tuesday morning, followed by a separate meeting with the opposition.

Earlier, opposition members emerging from the meeting said they had received a “positive response” from Mr. de Mistura about their demands in creating the basis for talks with the government: a release of political prisoners, the lifting of sieges on insurgent-held areas and a halt to airstrikes.But the opposition presented conflicting information about a list of detainees it wanted released. Salem al-Meslet, a spokesman for the opposition’s High Negotiation Committee, said Sunday that his group had compiled 3,800 names. Another committee member, Hind Kabawat, said the group had a provided a list of 300 women and children.

Mr. de Mistura told reporters that he had yet to receive any list. He said he was prepared to bring up such a list in negotiations as a way to show it was possible to achieve concrete results — what he described as one of the first “signals that there is something different happening.”

He said “the first immediate objective is to make sure the talks continue and that everyone is on board. It’s crucial no one should be feeling excluded.”The negotiations began amid further mayhem on the ground in Syria, where the death toll from a suicide attack on Sunday at a revered Shiite shrine near Damascus rose to 72, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack on the shrine, Sayeda Zeinab, which heightened the potential to sharpen sectarian divides in the conflict. The Islamic State, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq and is widely reviled as a Sunni extremist terrorist organization, is not a party to the Geneva talks, nor does it have any interest in a political settlement.Reflecting the United States’ concerns about Islamic State expansion, the Obama administration’s envoy to an American-led coalition that has been conducting airstrikes against the militant group slipped into northern Syria over the weekend to assess progress. The visit by the envoy, Brett McGurk, was the first by a senior United States official since the airstrikes began in 2014.Mr. McGurk said Monday that officials from the Defense Department had met with what he described as a “very diverse array of committed fighters” battling the Islamic State, including the Kurds, who have been excluded from the Syria peace talks. Mr. McGurk’s trip was expected to draw an angry reaction from the Syrian government, which regards such visits as a violation of its sovereignty.

In Moadhamiyeh, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus hit by heavy bombardment on Sunday, doctors said investigations had shown that breathing difficulties in patients had been caused by dust and phosphates and not from a chemical weapon like chlorine, as initially feared.

The Syrian government intensified its military advance even as it took steps to talk in Geneva. On Monday, a shell hit a school playground in the rebel-held town of Madaya, wounding several children, according to residents. The government has for months laid siege to Madaya, where some residents, including children, have starved because the delivery of emergency food and medicine has been obstructed. The United Nations has said the government is responsible for besieging roughly 187,000 people in rebel-held towns, while rebel groups are besieging two towns with around 12,000 residents.Until now, a cease-fire had held in Madaya and neighboring Zabadani, along with two government-held towns to the north that are surrounded by insurgents. The renewed military strikes on Madaya began in recent days, along with the talks in Geneva, as the warring parties jockeyed for leverage at the table.Umm Majd, a Madaya resident reached by telephone who gave only her nickname out of safety concerns, called on Riad Hijab, the head of the opposition High Negotiations Committee, to pull out of the Geneva talks because the cease-fire had been broken.“What negotiations are they talking about?” she said. “We’re living in starvation and blood. Before the conference there was a truce; after it we have shelling.”

She added: “I plead with the opposition negotiators to pull out. What are you negotiating on? On our blood! Or our children’s blood. Both ways we’re dying.” Her anger reflected the pressure on the opposition delegation to get something out of the talks. Opposition fighters have lately lost ground on the battlefield, mainly because of Russian airstrikes in support of government forces.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Geneva, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis from Rome.