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Geneva talks unlikely to focus on transition in Syria

Assad's future may be off the agenda at meeting of Syrian factions, with focus likely to be elections and governance.

Assad's rule

The office of the UN special envoy to Syria has declined to confirm whether a political transition will be discussed at the forthcoming talks in Geneva.

The development means Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's future will be off the agenda and the main focus of the meeting in the Swiss city will be governance, a new constitution and elections.

Staffan de Mistura, the envoy, is due to convene the new round of talks among Syrian factions in Geneva on February 23, after negotiations collapsed almost nine months ago.

A spokesman for De Mistura said he was still finalising who would come to the meeting but there were already positive responses to invitations that had gone out.

Countries opposed to Assad, including the US, back efforts by the UN to broker a political solution to the conflict, Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's foreign minister, said on Friday.

"It is clear that all who met want a political solution ... and that this political solution must be achieved in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations and that there cannot be any parallel negotiations," Gabriel said after a meeting in Bonn that included the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France and Britain.

The countries were meeting for the first time since Donald Trump took office as US president in a bid to find common ground in advance of the Geneva meeting.

Gabriel said Rex Tillerson, the new US secretary of state, played an active role in the discussions about how to end the war in Syria, which took place on the sidelines of a meeting in Bonn, Germany, of G20 foreign ministers.

Tillerson, trying to reassure allies that the US was not tilting towards Russia over the Syrian conflict, told them that the US backed UN efforts to broker a political solution to the war, officials and diplomats said.

READ MORE: Syria's civil war explained

He also said military ties with Russia depended on its stance towards rebels fighting the Assad government, who Russia backs.

All eyes have been on the US and its approach to ending the violence in Syria, given promises by Trump to build closer ties to Russia.

Speaking alongside Gabriel, Jean-Marc Ayrault, France's foreign minister, said the Geneva talks would ultimately fail if Russia did not use its influence on the Syrian government and Iran to stop labelling all those opposed to Assad as "terrorists".

Parallel peace talks 

On Thursday, Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, said the US supported Russian-sponsored parallel peace talks on Syria in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.

Those talks ended with no joint communique, usually the minimum outcome of any diplomatic negotiation, and saw opposing Syrian groups exchanging heated accusations at each other and the brokers.

Russia proposed a series of parallel intra-Syrian negotiations in coordination with Turkey and Iran last year in Astana to reinforce a shaky ceasefire.

It has tried to expand the scope to cover political aspects, a move that has been criticised by Western and Arab states, who argue that UN efforts are the only credible track for a political solution.

With its show of military force, Russia changed the tide of the Syrian civil war. However, it is finding the next phase - brokering an end to the fighting - a tougher proposition.

Russia's peace drive started hopefully, with the first Astana meeting in January.

The Syrian rebels and government came together for the first time in nine months, and agreement was reached to consolidate a shaky ceasefire.

But for the second round this week, the Syrian rebels debated until the eleventh hour about whether to attend at all, finally sending a smaller delegation which arrived in Astana a day late.

Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian government negotiator, said on Thursday that peace talks in Astana had not produced a communique because of the "irresponsible" late arrival of rebel participants and their Turkish backers which delayed the joint session by a day.

He also criticised the rebels and Turkey for downgrading their delegations from the previous meeting.

"Turkey cannot ignite the fire and at the same time act as a firefighter," he said after the talks.

The rebels, in turn, accused the Syrian government and Iran of routinely violating the ceasefire and Russia of failing to enforce it.

"We know that the Russians have a problem with those for whom they are guarantors," Yahya al-Aridi, a rebel negotiator, said, referring to Iran and Assad's forces.

'No common ground'

Haid Haid, an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the London-based Chatham House, says the prospects of the Astana talks' success were bleak due to virtually "no common ground between Turkey, Russia and Iran".

Speaking on Thursday, he said: "In order to implement the ceasefire, they have to punish those who violate ceasefires.

"[But] Russia and Iran do not want to put any pressure on the Syrian regime ... There are no enforcement mechanisms that could be a stepping stone to a political solution."

Five years since the civil war began, more than 450,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, more than a million injured and over 12 million Syrians - half the country's prewar population - have been displaced from their homes. 

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