A still image taken from a video uploaded by the Syrian Army on May 13 shows damaged buildings  on the edge of the capital, Damascus. Picture: REUTERS
A still image taken from a video uploaded by the Syrian Army on May 13 shows damaged buildings on the edge of the capital, Damascus. Picture: REUTERS

Beirut, Lebanon — A new round of Syrian peace talks opens in Geneva on Tuesday, overshadowed by a competing process in Astana and with rebels reeling from a major setback in Damascus.

Since it started in March 2011, Syria’s conflict has killed more than 320,000 people, displaced millions and ravaged the economy and infrastructure.

Efforts to end the war are now proceeding along two rival tracks: the formal political peace process hosted at UN headquarters in Geneva and, since January, parallel talks in Kazakhstan brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Observers say the UN appears to be scrambling to match Astana’s momentum after a landmark deal signed in Kazakhstan on May 4 that would create four "de-escalation" zones across some of Syria’s bloodiest battlegrounds.

However, UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura stressed on Monday the Geneva talks were working "in tandem" with the Astana process.

He has said the coming talks, which are expected to last just four days, aimed to "hit the iron while it’s hot", with the hope that de-escalation on the ground can help push towards "a political horizon".

Since the Astana deal came into effect a week ago, fighting has slowed across swathes of the country.

But in Damascus, which is not included in the deal, the government has secured the evacuation of three rebel-held districts, bringing it closer to exerting full control over the capital for the first time since 2012.

Numerous rounds of UN-backed talks have fallen short of producing concrete results, although during the last round in March the sides finally began discussing four separate "baskets" of issues: governance, a new constitution, elections and combating "terrorism" in the war-ravaged country.

Delegations were arriving in Geneva on Monday, a day before the talks start. The Syrian government team will be headed once again by its UN ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari.

The opposition delegation will be represented by the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and led again by Nasr al-Hariri and Mohammad Sabra.

The HNC has continued to call for the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad as part of a political transition, a demand seen as a nonstarter by the  Syrian regime.

Assad has brushed off the coming Geneva negotiations as "merely a meeting for the media". De Mistura downplayed Assad’s comments, pointing out that the Syrian president had sent a large, high-level delegation to Geneva, and "they are empowered to serious discussions and they are here to work".

AFP

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