New round of UN Syria talks closes with rivals trading blame

GENEVA/RAQA: The latest round of Syria peace talks wound down on Friday with rival sides trading familiar sound bites as the UN envoy maintained his push for incremental progress towards a deal. A delegation from Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s government and rebel negotiators were in Geneva this week for a seventh round of UN-backed negotiations aimed at resolving the devastating conflict.

United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura on Monday ruled out a breakthrough this round but insisted hopes for progress were heightened thanks in part to a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia.
The regime side, led by Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar al Jaafari, held its final meeting with De Mistura on Friday, praising the round as “useful”.
“We focused on two main topics: the first one was counter-terrorism and the second one was related to the technical, legal and constitutional discussions”, Jaafari told reporters.
The opposition says the regime stresses the terrorism issue to distract focus from political transition, the flashpoint subject that implies a negotiated end to the Assad regime.
The Geneva talks focus on four so-called “baskets” — a new constitution, governance, elections and fighting terrorism.

The first three were set out by the Security Council, while terrorism was added at the regime’s insistence.
The main opposition delegation, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), finished its last meeting with the UN before blasting the regime for thwarting the process.
“Let’s speak frankly, the Syrian regime, until this moment, is refusing any engagements and discussion or negotiation,” the HNC’s delegation chief, Nasr al Hariri told reporters.
He said the HNC focused this week on governance, an election and a drafting new constitution.
Hariri again accused the regime of using “the excuse of terrorism” to stall the talks.
“The only key to fight terrorism is political transition… that moves Syria to a stable and safe country,” he said.
De Mistura was scheduled to brief the Security Council later on Friday about his peace push for Syria, a country gripped by a six-year war that has claimed more than 320,000 lives.
US-backed forces in new push: US-backed forces have captured a new district from militants in Raqa but struggled on Friday to hold
their positions against suicide car bombers, a fighter in the city and a monitor said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, seized the eastern Batani district from the IS group on Thursday.
“Late on Thursday, they began an offensive on neighbouring Al Rumeilah,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Clashes were raging on Friday as IS deployed its typical defensive tactics: Weaponised drones, snipers, and improvised explosive devices, Abdel Rahman said.
On the ground in the Al Mashleb and Al Senaa neighbourhoods in the city’s east, a correspondent saw buildings entirely destroyed by air strikes and others peppered with bullet holes.
Spent bullet casings were scattered along streets of the neighbourhoods along with the burnt-out carcasses of cars.
Monitors for Syria ceasefire: Russia has said it is willing to deploy monitors to prevent any violations of a ceasefire in southwestern Syria by Syrian government forces, a senior US official said in Washington on Thursday.
Brett McGurk, US special envoy for the coalition against IS, said the United States was “very encouraged” by the progress since the ceasefire arranged by the United States, Russia and Jordan took effect on Sunday.
“The Russians have made clear they’re very serious about this and willing to put some of their people on the ground to help monitor from the regime side,” McGurk told reporters. “They do not want the regime violating the ceasefire.”  — AFP/Reuters