Syrian peace talks under the auspices of the United Nations resumed in Geneva on Thursday, 10 months after falling apart over escalating bloodshed in the war-torn country.
The talks in the Swiss capital began as Turkish troops and Syrian opposition forces seized the center of the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab, breaking a weeks-long deadlock between the two sides at the periphery of the town in northern Syria, according to Turkey’s state news agency and Syrian opposition activists.
The seizure of al-Bab after a protracted, bloody fight that leveled large parts of the city brings Ankara closer to its stated goal for its months-long operation in Syria: Driving IS fighters from the border and preventing Kurdish rebels in the north from linking their territories west and east of Syria along the Turkish border.
It also highlights the complexity of the Syrian terrain. Pro-government forces are just 3 kilometers (2 miles) south of al-Bab, though clashes with the opposition forces in the area have so far been limited.
The Geneva talks, which exclude extremist groups like the Islamic State group, are the latest bid to end Syria’s catastrophic six-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced some 11 million more. The conflict has long been a proxy war between international and regional stakeholders in this Arab nation.
U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura convened separate meetings with representatives of the government and opposition delegations Thursday morning. He said he hoped to convene a “sort of welcoming ceremony” and bilateral talks later in the day.
De Mistura also met with a group of Syrian women who came to push for the discussion of the fate of detainees and abducted people in the Syrian conflict. They held a symbolic moment of silence together.
“There are thousands and thousands of mothers, wives, daughters who are hoping that at least this aspect will be one of the benefits of any negotiation,” De Mistura told reporters.
A day earlier, he played down expectations for the talks, saying he did not expect any breakthroughs, but all parties are aware that the dynamics in Syria have changed since talks were last in Geneva in April.
Abdulahad Astepho, a member of the opposition delegation, said rebels would feature in a “greater role” in this round of talks, reflecting the changing dynamics inside Syria, where factions are drifting away from the exiled opposition leadership and closer to ultraconservative groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front.
The Geneva talks come after cease-fire discussions in Astana, Kazakhstan, that were coordinated largely by Turkey, the opposition’s closest state backer in the civil war, and Russia, whose air power has supported Assad’s forces. In those meetings, the rebels sat face-to-face with a government delegation — a first — and the exiled political opposition was present only on the sidelines. They have not yet sat face-to-face under U.N. auspices.
This is the fourth round of U.N.-mediated talks since early last year.