GENEVA Saudi Arabia is determined that tensions with Iran should not derail international talks on Syria, another round of which is scheduled to take place in Geneva this month, the U.N. special envoy for Syria said on Tuesday.
The United Nations has set a target date of Jan. 25 for the talks. But Damascus has dismissed a new opposition body formed to oversee negotiations, and the opposition wants to see confidence-building steps from President Bashar al-Assad, a demand that could complicate efforts to start talks.
There is concern that the rift between Riyadh and Tehran, both of which have attended previous talks on Syria and which support opposing sides in the war, could set back diplomatic efforts to bring peace.
Staffan de Mistura, speaking after he met Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir and the Syrian opposition in Riyadh, said there was a clear determination by the Saudi side that current regional tensions would not have a negative impact on the momentum of the talks and on the continuation of the political process in Geneva.
De Mistura did not characterise the position of the Syrian opposition at the meeting, but said: "We cannot afford to lose this momentum despite what is going on in the region."
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan broke all ties with Iran, and the United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations on Monday after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was stormed by protesters. Kuwait recalled its ambassador to Iran on Tuesday.
Syria's opposition has said it wants to see confidence-building steps from Damascus including a prisoner release, stopping bombardments of towns and cities, and the lifting of blockades imposed by the government on rebel-held areas.
Britain's Special Representative for Syria on Tuesday urged the government to lift sieges as a step towards ending the nearly five-year-old conflict.
"Starving civilians is an inhuman tactic used by the Assad regime and their allies," Gareth Bayley said in a statement, referring to a months-long blockade in the town of Madaya, near Damascus.
"Sieges must be lifted to save civilian lives and to bring Syria closer to peace ... this human tragedy underscores the need for an end to this conflict."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has also reported the siege on Madaya, where it says its 40,000 residents are affected by the blockade with many starving.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by John Davison in Beirut; Editing by Richard Balmforth)
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