The UN insisted that high-stakes peace talks aimed at ending the brutal, five-year-old Syrian conflict would still begin in Switzerland later Friday despite uncertainty over whether key groups would even attend.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura “will start by meeting the government’s delegation today (Friday)” in Geneva, followed by talks with “other participants”, the United Nations said in a statement.
The Syrian government delegation, headed by Syria’s envoy to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari, arrived in Geneva early afternoon, a source said.
Opposition figures not part of the umbrella group High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said they would be present.
However, despite Western pressure on the HNC, it has yet to decide whether to come and was engaged in a fourth day of discussions in Saudi Arabia on Friday.
The talks, backed by all the external powers embroiled in the war, are the biggest push yet to end a conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people and facilitated the meteoric rise of the extremist Islamic State (IS) group.
The highly complex conflict, now almost five years old, has also destabilised the already restive Middle East and drawn in not only regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey but also the United States and Russia.
It has also forced millions of Syrians from their homes, many of them into neighbouring states and further afield, causing a major political headache for the European Union which received around a million migrants in 2015.
De Mistura issued on Thursday an emotional video message to the Syrian people both inside and outside the country saying that after previous failures, this new effort “cannot fail”.
“Five years of this conflict have been too much. The horror is in front of everyone’s eyes,” de Mistura said. “You must know also that we count on you to raise your voice to say ‘khalas’ (“stop” in Arabic). “The Geneva negotiations, if they happen, would not be a face-to-face conversation between the regime and its opponents. Instead they are “proximity talks” when go-betweens shuttle between the different participants.”