Syria picks UN envoy as chief negotiator for peace talks

AFP , Thursday 21 Jan 2016

Bashar Al- Jaafari
File photo of Syrian ambassador the UN, Bashar Al- Jaafari. (Photo: Reuters)

Syria's UN envoy will be the regime's chief negotiator in upcoming peace talks, a government source said Thursday, as a dispute over the opposition's representatives threatened to delay the negotiations.

The latest bid to end the Syrian war through indirect talks between the government and opposition was scheduled to begin on January 25 in Geneva.

But a disagreement over which parts of the opposition will be present, and who will represent them, is posing new obstacles.

Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, will be the government's chief negotiator, with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Moqdad heading the delegation, the Syrian government source said.

Jaafari also served as the regime's chief negotiator in a previous round of peace talks in Geneva in 2014.

The Al-Watan daily, which is close to the government, said the delegation would also include several senior lawyers and other foreign ministry officials.

On Wednesday, the main coalition of opposition bodies, the so-called High Negotiations Committee, announced its own delegation to the talks.

But its decision to name a member of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group as its chief negotiator has drawn criticism both from some of its own members, and opposition figures excluded from the coalition.

The National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change, a key opposition body still present in Damascus, said it was "not acceptable" for the delegation's chief negotiator to come from the armed opposition.

"This sends the wrong political message to the Syrian people," it said in a statement.

And Haytham Manna, an opposition figure who does not belong to the High Negotiations Committee, accused it of including "war criminals" in its delegation.

He told AFP it was "impossible" for him to participate in an opposition delegation with figures like Mohamed Alloush, whose Jaish al-Islam group is active mostly around Damascus.

Damascus has not responded officially, but Al-Watan said "observers" deemed Alloush's appointment "a provocative step with the sole goal of thwarting any possible dialogue".

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday reiterated that Moscow viewed the Jaish al-Islam group and the powerful Ahrar al-Sham rebel organisation as "terrorist" groups.

There is also disagreement about whether the opposition will be represented by one or two delegations.

The High Negotiations Committee insists it must be the sole opposition representative, but other opposition figures and Syria's Kurds have been excluded from its ranks and also want to participate in the talks.

Al-Watan said that Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry had discussed the issue in Zurich on Wednesday.

The newspaper said Lavrov had proposed a joint delegation, with half the members chosen by Moscow -- a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad -- and the rest by the High Negotiations Committee.

The daily said Kerry would now raise the proposal with Saudi officials, who have pushed back against the attendance of other opposition figures at the talks.

It reported that Kerry would warn that Moscow was ready to insist two opposition delegations attend the talks.

The High Negotiations Committee said Wednesday it would not attend the Geneva talks if another delegation was added.

It also said negotiations were impossible if civilians continued to face regime strikes and siege tactics.

According to Al-Watan, the UN's special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will travel to Riyadh for talks on Sunday and hold a press conference on the Geneva talks on Monday.

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