Syrian opposition heads to Geneva for peace talks

Syrian opposition team heads to leave Riyadh for UN brokered peace talks in Geneva

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Riad Hijab, who heads the Syrian opposition council, speaks during a news conference in Riyadh on January 20, 2016

A delegation representing Syria's main opposition group is heading to Geneva on Saturday to assess the intentions of the Syrian government in implementing humanitarian measures that could allow it to join peace settlement negotiations, an opposition representative said.

The 17-member team including the head of the Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC) Riad Hijab and negotiation team head Asaad al Zoubi would board a plane in the next hour from the Saudi capital, Riyad Naasan Agha told Reuters. They are expected to arrive in Geneva late on Saturday.

Syria's main opposition group agreed to travel to Geneva, where the United Nations on Friday opened peace talks to end the country's five-year-old war, but said it wanted to discuss humanitarian issues before engaging in political negotiations.

Hijab on Thursday had said that his group would not attend the UN-brokered peace talks until an agreement was reached on aid entering besieged towns.

The Syrian opposition said they demand a goodwill step in the ending of air strikes and blockades against civilians and that they would leave the process if these measures were not implemented.

Russian air strikes on Syria have killed nearly 1,400 civilians since Moscow started its aerial campaign nearly four months ago, Syrian Observatory of  Human Rights (SOHR) said on Saturday.

Residents look for survivors at a site hit by what activists said were three consecutive air strikes carried out by the Russian air force, the last which hit an ambulance, in the rebel-controlled area in Idlib, Syria January 12, 2016

The HNC decision to travel to Geneva came after a phone call with the US Secretary General John Kerry and after receiving an answer from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to a letter sent to him by the committee.

"Guarantees came that (United Nations) Resolution 2254 would be implemented in full ... so we will go to Geneva to discuss humanitarian issues," spokesman of the HNC Salim al-Muslat told.

"We have agreed on a certain time period, which I cannot disclose now," al Muslat said. "Perhaps the coming days will show a serious approach to this issue. If there is then we will continue. If we don't see a serious approach then there will be a different decision."

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Friday that he hopes the meeting with the Syrian opposition would be held on Sunday.

"I have good reasons to believe that they are actually considering this very seriously, and therefore to be in a position on, probably, Sunday, to actually start the discussion with them, in order to be able to proceed with the intra-Syrian talks," said de Mistura.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Saturday the Geneva talks must ensure human rights are upheld as participants work towards a political transition in Syria.

"Humanitarian law must be respected and the objective of a political transition actively pursued to enable the talks to succeed," Fabius said in a statement sent to Reuters.

The HNC's demands include allowing aid convoys into rebel-held besieged areas where tens of thousands are living in dire conditions, Agha said.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Saturday that 16 people have starved to death in the government-besieged town of Madaya since aid convoys arrived this month and blamed the authorities for blocking medical supplies shipments.

Agha said the opposition delegation, including HNC head Riad Hijab and chief negotiator Asaad al Zoubi, would not call for a complete cessation of hostilities but would demand an end to "the indiscriminate shelling of markets, hospitals and schools by the regime and its Russian backers."

TRTWorld and agencies