New Syrian peace talks in Geneva next month

MOSCOW: The next round of UN-sponsored Syrian peace talks in Geneva will take place in the second half of January, special envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday.

This month’s negotiations had gone badly, the UN envoy admitted to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a meeting in Moscow.

On Friday De Mistura will also attend the latest round of the parallel Russian-backed peace talks in Astana. Delegations from Russia, Iran and Turkey, along with Syrian regime representatives and a 20-strong opposition delegation, arrived in the Kazakh capital on Thursday.

Alexander Lavrentiev, the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy in Astana, said there was no reason for US forces to remain in Syria and Washington’s stated reasons for maintaining a military presence there were groundless.

Syria’s opposition urged Moscow to use its influence with Bashar Assad. “We are asking the Russian side, now more than ever before, to put pressure on the regime to push it toward a political settlement,” the opposition delegation said.

Their negotiators will also focus on the reinforcement of the cease-fire, especially in the de-escalation zones, the lifting of sieges on all towns and villages and the delivery of assistance to those in need, the opposition said.

In Syria, at least 16 people died while waiting for medical evacuation from Syria’s besieged Eastern Ghouta region. A list put together several months ago of nearly 500 civilians in desperate need of evacuation was rapidly shrinking, Jan Egeland, head of the UN’s humanitarian taskforce for Syria, said in Geneva.

“That number is going down, not because we are evacuating people, but because they are dying,” he said.

Moscow has led the talks in Astana since the start of the year as it tries to turn its decisive military intervention in Syria into a negotiated settlement. The Kremlin also hopes to convene a “peace and reconciliation” congress in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, but no date has been set amid disputes over who should attend.

The Russian parliament voted on Thursday to extend Russia’s lease on its Syrian naval base at Tartus for 49 years. The agreement allows Russia to keep 11 vessels there at a time, including nuclear-powered ships.

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