Syrian peace talks under the auspices of the United Nations resumed in Geneva on Thursday, 10 months after falling apart over escalating bloodshed in the war-torn country.
The talks come as Turkish troops and Syrian opposition forces seized the center of the Islamic State group (I.S.)-held town of al-Bab, breaking a weeks-long deadlock between the two sides at the periphery of the town, according to Turkey’s state news agency.
Pro-government forces are just 3 kilometers (2 miles) south of al-Bab, though clashes with the opposition forces in the area have so far been limited.
The Geneva talks are the latest bid to end Syria’s catastrophic six-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced some 11 million more.
U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura convened separate meetings with representatives of the government and opposition delegations Thursday morning. He said he hoped to convene a “sort of welcoming ceremony” and bilateral talks later in the day.
De Mistura also met with a group of Syrian women who came to push for the discussion of the fate of detainees and abducted people in the Syrian conflict. They held a symbolic moment of silence together.
“There are thousands and thousands of mothers, wives, daughters who are hoping that at least this aspect will be one of the benefits of any negotiation,” De Mistura told reporters.
A day earlier, he played down expectations for the talks, saying he did not expect any breakthroughs, but all parties are aware that the dynamics in Syria have changed since talks were last in Geneva in April.
Abdulahad Astepho, a member of the opposition delegation, said rebels would feature in a “greater role” in this round of talks, reflecting the changing dynamics inside Syria, where factions are drifting away from the exiled opposition leadership and closer to ultraconservative groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front.
The Geneva talks come after cease-fire discussions in Astana, Kazakhstan, that were coordinated largely by Turkey, the opposition’s closest state backer in the civil war, and Russia, whose air power has supported Assad’s forces. In those meetings, the rebels sat face-to-face with a government delegation — a first — and the exiled political opposition was present only on the sidelines. They have not yet sat face-to-face under U.N. auspices.
This is the fourth round of U.N.-mediated talks since early last year.
Despite the cease-fire, violations nevertheless occur on a daily basis, in part because of the ambiguous wording of the original agreement, signed in Ankara in late December.
On Thursday, activists reported heavy clashes across the southern city of Daraa between pro-government forces and opposition factions headed by a Qaida-linked group.
Opposition media agencies also reported government air raids around the Hama countryside, in central Syria.
The government has insisted that the cease-fire does not protect al-Qaida-linked groups, while rebels say the agreement they signed in Ankara says it does. Rebels have found themselves dependent on al-Qaida’s battle-hardened factions since 2015 to rebuff government advances around the country.
In al-Bab, 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of the Turkish border, Turkish troops and Syrian opposition forces were sweeping the town center for mines left over by retreating I.S. militants, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
The Syrian government has repeatedly decried Turkey’s troop presence as a violation of Syrian sovereignty and an act of aggression, but the two sides have not faced off.
Government forces are instead focusing their efforts on forcing out the opposition from positions around the capital, Damascus and fighting rebels in Daraa, and the I.S. in the north and east of the country.
Assad’s forces were able to expel rebel fighters in December from a longtime stronghold on the eastern side of the city of Aleppo, which was Syria’s economic capital and largest city before the war began.
Speaking ahead of the Geneva meeting, an opposition delegation member said that they hoped to achieve “at least something at the human dimension: lifting the siege in certain areas, getting aid to those who are besieged.”
He also hoped there would be serious work on the issue of political transition, a sticking point of past talks. “The world has to end this saga. The world has to end these brutalities,” said Yahya al-Aridi.