Ongoing Syria talks in Geneva appeared to show some signs of movement on Wednesday, as opposition negotiators said the government had been pressured by Russia to address their demands for a political transition.
For seven days now, negotiations between government and opposition representatives in the Swiss city have focused almost entirely on format, in the hopes of arranging more substantive talks in later rounds.
But after a two-hour closed-door session at United Nations headquarters with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, lead opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri said they held “deep discussions for the first time”.
“The subject of political transition has become the main subject on the table,” he told reporters, calling it “a good start”.
The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has repeatedly said its central goal in Geneva is to discuss “political transition” in Syria.
Government representatives have previously said that a political transition, which would ultimately see President Bashar al-Assad relinquish power, is not up for discussion. But a flurry of secretive diplomatic meetings over the past two days could have forced a change, according to the opposition.
“We heard from Mr de Mistura that – due to Russian pressure, and this is a sign that can be initially encouraging – there is acceptance to tackle the issues enshrined in (UN Security Council resolution) 2254, and most importantly to us political transition,” Hariri said.
Resolution 2254 lays the basis for discussions on a political transition, including a new constitution, UN-supervised elections and accountable governance.
Lead government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari arrived to the UN with a large delegation to meet with de Mistura shortly after Hariri spoke to the press, but left quietly and without giving a statement.
But such a political concession by the government, after major gains on the battlefield, has never been up for discussion, according to past comments by Jaafari, while some diplomats described the announcement as a to ploy to buy further time.
Aides to de Mistura told Al Jazeera that another round of Russian-led multilateral meetings in the Kazakh capital of Astana would start again on March 14.
Russia, Turkey and Iran held two rounds of meetings with the warring sides in Astana over the past month in an effort to firm up a failing ceasefire, which has steadily fallen apart in recent weeks.
Hariri accused the government of using increased violence on the ground to foil talks in Geneva.
Momentum towards the discussion of any substantive political issues in Geneva stalled after last weekend’s deadly suicide attack on military installations in the government-held city of Homs.
Both sides have accused each other of attempting to sabotage the Geneva process, and the government has since insisted that negotiations should start with an agreement on the need to fight “terror”.
The HNC said on Wednesday it will not allow “terrorism” to be added to the agenda of the Geneva talks.
“We will not deal with it, and if (de Mistura) adds it in any time we will not deal with it or discuss it,” Yehya Kodmani, the HNC’s delegation head, told reporters.
On the contrary, a source close to Syrian government negotiators told state-run news agency SANA that the delegation remained adamant that the subject of “terrorism” should be placed on equal footing along with the three UN-proposed topics of governance, constitution and election.
The source said the government delegation had “in-depth and fruitful talks” with de Mistura over the past two days, and was satisfied with the progress of the talks.
De Mistura has said that all issues related to “terrorism” and the failing ceasefire be dealt with in parallel talks in Astana.
But shortly after arriving to Geneva on Tuesday, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov backed government demands that “terrorism should not be ignored” in Geneva.
“The fight against terrorism is a priority and should be on the agenda (in Geneva) along with other issues,” said Gatilov.
The HNC was set to formally meet with Gatilov on Wednesday evening, and hoped to have “constructive discussions” the failing ceasefire and the deteriorating humanitarian situation across many areas of the country.
Russia ‘failed’ as guarantor of ceasefire
Hariri said Russia had failed to “fulfill its role as a guarantor of the ceasefire” and that the opposition was “still looking for a positive Russian role in Syria”.
Russia has taken over the diplomatic process surrounding the war in Syria since its air force helped government troops defeat rebels in Aleppo, dealing the opposition its largest loss of the war.
Earlier in the day, HNC spokesperson Farah al-Atassi told Russia’s Interfax news agency that the opposition expected Moscow to recognise the HNC as a full-fledged partner in the negotiations and warned against dragging out the process.
“I think it’s about time for Russians to understand that if they keep avoiding working with HNC, in a few years it might happen they will be sitting in front of ISIS leaders and trying to find solutions for Syria,” Atassi said, using an acronym to refer to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Russia now has “the possibility to fully engage with the HNC and consider it a real partner and to go with us into political transition in Syria,” she said.
With reporting by Dylan Collins: @collinsdyl