GENEVA Syria's chief government negotiator sought on Friday to steer U.N. peace talks away from the issue of a political transition, saying his immediate focus at the start of a new round was to submit amendments to a framework document for the talks.
The Syrian government, buoyed by Russian and Iranian military support, arrived in Geneva six days after U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura had hoped to begin the negotiations, and with increased fighting near Aleppo threatening to undermine the shaky truce that underpins the talks.
The previous round of indirect negotiations ended on March 24, with de Mistura issuing a document on 12 common guiding principles and vowing to shift the focus to a political transition to resolve the five-year-old civil war.
But after almost two hours with de Mistura, Bashar Ja'afari told reporters that he had given the U.N. envoy amendments to his document and would wait for him and his team to "study in-depth" the paper over the weekend and submit it to other groups.
"We agreed with de Mistura that we will once again discuss our proposal the next time we will meet on Monday," he said. Ja'afari declined to answer questions, and de Mistura cancelled a planned news briefing.
The main opposition delegation, the High Negotiations Committee, has been in Geneva for two days and was scheduled to meet de Mistura after he met Ja'afari.
The opposition told Reuters on Thursday that it was willing to share seats on a transitional governing body with members of Syria's government, but President Bashar al-Assad must leave power and it was now time to discuss a transition.
Assad has rejected the idea of a transitional governing body, saying instead he could broaden the government to include what he described as opposition and independent figures.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said Assad's future was not up for negotiation in Geneva or elsewhere, Russia's TASS news agency quoted him as saying in Damascus.
"This issue should be decided by the Syrian people themselves in a democratic procedure. And they will never discuss it with anybody (else)," Zoubi said.
Rebel commanders from Syria said on Friday in Geneva they still backed the talks, but accused the Damascus government of trying to shatter the ceasefire deal and urged world powers to judge whether it remained viable.
A senior Western diplomat close to the talks said it was clear that Syria's government had no intention to negotiate in good faith. “The regime is doing everything it can to kill the negotiations," the diplomat said.
"If there was one moment when it shouldn’t launch an offensive (in the Aleppo region) then it really shouldn’t be the day before the government delegation arrives in Geneva."
The diplomat said the Assad government was refusing to talk about transition.
"De Mistura insists it is the only agenda and that the 12 points from the previous round are done and dusted. Let’s see how he plays it, but he can’t give the regime a window to get out of this."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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