Geneva: The UN special envoy for Syria fought today to keep alive the biggest diplomatic push yet to end the Syrian war as US Secretary of State John Kerry urged both sides "to make the most of this moment" in an online statement broadcast from Washington.
Kerry urged the opposition to drop their preconditions, but also had hard words for their foes, accusing Assad's forces of deliberately starving besieged towns.
Highlighting the urgency, a triple bombing near a revered Shiite shrine outside the capital Damascus killed more than 50 people in the latest bloody attack claimed by the extremist Islamic State group. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the attacks were "clearly aimed to disrupt the attempts to start a political process" to end a conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people.
In Geneva, UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura held separate talks with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad and with the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) opposition umbrella group. He said he was "optimistic and determined", but comments from both sides laid bare the enormity of the challenges ahead for ending a highly complex and bitter conflict. The HNC delegation reluctantly arrived late on Saturday in Geneva and immediately threatened to turn around and leave again unless Assad's "crimes" stop.
Among its demands are that humanitarian aid be allowed to reach hundreds of thousands of people stuck in besieged towns, a halt to the bombing of civilians and the release of hundreds of prisoners. "We only came to Geneva after written commitments on the fact that there would be serious progress on the humanitarian issues," HNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani told reporters.
"We are here for political negotiations but we cannot start those until we have those gestures."
But Damascus' chief negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari denounced the opposition as "not serious". "We do not know who is the other side. They don't even have a final list," he told a packed news conference.
He described the talks in Geneva as being at a "pivotal phase" and said the HNC represented an "inclusive opposition". De Mistura's office said today that further separate talks would be held tomorrow with the opposition and government delegations. HNC spokesman Munzer Makhous told AFP that the group would stay in Geneva for at least three or four more days. The Syrian conflict, which began in 2011, has sucked in a wide range of actors from Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states to Western nations and since September, Russia.