GENEVA—The United Nations special envoy for Syria on Wednesday announced a pause in peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, temporarily derailing the major diplomatic initiative aimed at ending the country’s almost five-year-old war.
The UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters in a surprise announcement in Geneva that he was calling a “temporary pause” in the talks, which he said would be scheduled to resume on February 25.
“It is not the end and it is not the failure of the talks,” de Mistura told reporters.
Still, the move was clearly a significant setback for a process that began less than a week ago and was backed by major powers on both sides of the conflict, including the United States and Russia.
De Mistura expressed frustration that the “Syrian people” had not yet seen concrete humanitarian results from the talks, such as lifting of sieges and a reduction of bombardment—steps that the opposition has demanded before formal negotiations begin. He had been pressing for such steps.
“The talks would not be meaningful unless they were also accompanied by immediate tangible benefits for the Syrian people,” de Mistura said, adding that he had repeatedly made that point to the UN and countries backing the talks.
The veteran diplomat, speaking under umbrellas in the rain outside a lakefront hotel in the Swiss city, emphasized that both sides—the government and opposition representatives—were committed to starting the peace process envisioned in the agenda of the Geneva talks.
Supporters of the talks hope they will result in a cease-fire in the Syrian conflict, political reforms, a new Constitution and UN-backed elections.
While experts said that achieving such goals was a long way off in war-ravaged and deeply divided Syria, the talks were widely viewed as a potentially positive development in a conflict that has left more than 200,000 people dead, destroyed towns and cities, and sent refugees streaming throughout the region and into Europe.
“Both sides insisted on the fact they are interested in having the political process started,” said de Mistura.
The decision to postpone comes after days of uncertainty about the talks, which formally opened last Friday, though the major opposition delegation did not arrive until Monday. Uncertainty has plagued the process.
While de Mistura has held meetings with both sides, the government and opposition delegations say no substantial talks have occurred, only preliminary discussions.
The major opposition bloc, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the talks if the Syrian government did not halt sieges and bombardment of rebel-held areas and release prisoners.
Damascus said such questions should be dealt with as part of the negotiations and refused to consider “preconditions.”
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, were making sweeping gains, including in the northern province of Aleppo, which is divided between opposition and government control.
The Russian entry into the war last September 30, at the invitation of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, has helped turn the tide of the conflict on various battle fronts.
On Wednesday the Syrian government said its forces had broken opposition sieges of a pair of northern towns, Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo province, that had been under opposition siege for more than two years. The two towns, with majority Shiite populations, are pro-government bastions and had been encircled by Sunni Islamist rebels, including al-Qaeda-linked forces.
The Saudi-backed opposition delegation at the peace talks had called for an end to Russian bombardment on behalf of the Syrian government. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday during a visit to Oman that the Russian aerial assault was targeting “terrorists” and would not stop.
Image credits: Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP