UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said that talks on ending the civil war in Syria have now officially started, after initial resistance by the country’s main opposition bloc over humanitarian demands.
Speaking to reporters after meeting delegates of the opposition bloc in Geneva on Monday, de Mistura said: “We are starting officially the Geneva talks… The discussions are starting.”
The Swedish-Italian diplomat said he expected the talks to be “complicated and difficult”, but that Syria’s people deserved to “see something concrete, apart from a long, painful negotiation.”
“The first immediate objective is to make sure the talks continue and that everyone is on board,” de Mistura said.
He could not comment on how long he expected the first round of talks to last, but said he hoped negotiations “achieve something” by February 11.
“The duration of the negotiations depends on the willingness and the determination of both sides,” he added.
Salim al-Muslet, the spokesman of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said: “We came here to discuss with the special envoy UN resolution 2254; lifting the sieges and stopping the crimes done by Russian air strikes in Syria, and I believe we received positive messages.”
The preliminary meeting between the HNC and de Mistura came as the UN reported eight more deaths from insufficient medical care in one of the many towns besieged by government or rebel forces.
The HNC insisted that humanitarian aid reach towns under government siege before it would agree to enter indirect talks with Assad’s government, which are scheduled to last six months.
The talks are part of the biggest push to date to chart a way out of the tangled Syrian war that has killed more than 260,000 people and forced millions from their homes since the violence began in March 2011.
The urgency to find a solution was brought home on Sunday when attacks claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group killed 71 people near a revered Shia shrine outside the capital Damascus, according to monitors.
The new deaths reported on Monday by the UN humanitarian organisation OCHA took place in Moadimayet al-Sham, southwest of Damascus, the site of a 2013 chemical weapons attack.
OCHA said there had been a “sharp deterioration of the humanitarian situation” in the town, which has been besieged by Assad’s forces since 2012, although conditions improved after a 2014 truce deal.