Syria conflict: Government rejects direct peace talks

The head of the Syrian government's delegation, Bashar al-Jaafari, speaks to reporters in Geneva (16 March 2016)  Bashar al-Jaafari said the Russian withdrawal was a joint decision by Moscow and Damascus

Syrian government representatives have ruled out starting direct negotiations with the opposition, as UN-backed peace talks entered a third day in Geneva.

On Tuesday, opposition leaders said they were ready to meet face-to-face.

But chief government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari rejected the idea, calling his opposition counterpart a terrorist.

Meanwhile, Syria’s main Kurdish party – which has not been invited to Geneva – plans to declare a federal system of administration in the country’s north.

Officials from the Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose YPG militia controls a 400km (250-mile) stretch of contiguous territory along the Turkish border, said the system would include representation for all ethnic groups living there.

Supporters of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) protest against the party's exclusion from the Geneva talks in Qamishli (4 February 2016)The Democratic Union Party (PYD) criticised the decision to exclude it from the Geneva talks

Mr Jaafari refused to comment on the plan but warned: “Betting on creating any kind of divisions among the Syrians will be a total failure.”

He also explained after his second meeting with UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura that he would refuse to take part in direct talks with the opposition’s chief negotiator, Mohammed Alloush, a member of the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group.

Mr Jaafari accused Mr Alloush of belonging to a terrorist organisation that “bombed embassies” and “killed engineering students”, and demanded that he “apologises for the statement he made previously and withdraws it”, without elaborating.

More on the Syria conflict

Ghazal, 4, (L) and Judy, 7, carrying 8-month-old Suhair, react after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad near the Syrian Arab Red Crescent centre in the Douma district of Damascus, Syria (6 May 2015)

The so-called “proximity” talks currently involve Mr de Mistura shuttling between the two sides, communicating their different views on how to end the five-year conflict, in which more than 250,000 people have been killed.

Mr Jaafari’s refusal to meet the opposition face-to-face shows that despite initial progress these talks will be difficult, reports the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes in Geneva.

The Syrian government is clearly smarting over Russia‘s plan to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, our correspondent says. Although Mr Jaafari insisted this was a decision taken jointly by Moscow and Damascus, she adds, all the signs are that President Bashar al-Assad was taken by surprise

President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly declared on Monday that Russia’s five-and-a-half month air campaign against Mr Assad’s opponents had achieved its objectives, which included “radically” turning the tide of the war and creating conditions for peace talks.

Following talks late on Tuesday with representatives of the main opposition umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Mr de Mistura said he believed the peace process had acquired a new “sense of urgency”.

He put that down to three factors – the refugee crisis in neighbouring countries and in Europe; Russia’s decision to pull out its forces; and gains made by the jihadist group Islamic State (IS).

Russian Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft take off from the Hmeimim air base in Latakia province, Syria  A second group of Russian aircraft left Hmeimim air base in Syria on Wednesday

Mr de Mistura also said he would try to “metabolise” position papers provided by the opposition and government and see where there was common ground.

The future of President Bashar al-Assad is a major sticking point.

The HNC has insisted Mr Assad step down before the start of a transitional period, while the government has ruled out any transfer of power, calling the issue of the presidency a “red line”.

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