Syria peace talks delayed until Friday: UN envoy

Talks aimed at ending Syria’s brutal war will begin in Geneva on Friday, the UN mediator said, after a delay over who will represent the country’s fractious opposition.

Negotiations had been scheduled to open on Monday, but UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva “a stalemate” over the makeup of the delegations had forced the date back.

He said he expected to be able to send invitations to the delegates on Tuesday, but declined to say who would be asked to attend, only saying the list would be “as inclusive as possible“.

The announcement came as a truck suicide bomber killed at least 23 people in the Syrian city of Aleppo, most of them from the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A rebel commander and 11 members of his family were also killed in a Russian air strike on a village between the northern province of Idlib and Aleppo, the Britain-based monitor said.

The renewed efforts to end Syria’s war, which has killed more than 260,000 people and displaced half the country’s population, come as the conflict approaches its fifth year.

The talks are part of a UN-backed plan agreed last year that envisages negotiations, followed by the creation of a transitional government, a new constitution and elections within 18 months.

The United States and Russia have been piling on pressure for the talks to get under way, but disagreement over who should represent the opposition has made it difficult to get started, De Mistura said.

The so-called “proximity talks” are scheduled to last six months, with the first round lasting between two and three weeks, he said, adding he expected to do “a lot of shuttling” between the sides.  “We are all feeling... the time has come to try hard to produce an outcome,” De Mistura said.

De Mistura said that the first priority would be to try to secure “a broad ceasefire” and space to deliver humanitarian aid to suffering Syrians.

He explained that he was moving forward cautiously to avoid a repeat of the failure seen when the UN last tried to put the sides together.

Russia’s foreign ministry said US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had called on De Mistura to set a start date “as quickly as possible“, underscoring the growing urgency among global powers to end the crisis.

Last month, several key opposition bodies, including rebel groups, formed a coalition known as the High Negotiations Committee to participate in the mooted talks.

But the coalition excludes Syria’s main Kurdish party and a range of other opposition figures.

Moscow has sought to have some of those excluded participate in the talks either within a broad opposition delegation, or in a second opposition delegation to the negotiations.

But the High Negotiations Committee accuses Damascus ally Russia of trying to stack the opposition delegation with figures close to the regime, and has threatened to boycott the talks if other opposition representatives are invited.

Over the weekend, Kerry meanwhile met members of the committee in Saudi Arabia to urge them to participate, warning the opposition risked “losing friends” if it boycotted, committee member Fuad Aliko told AFP.

Aliko said it would take a final decision on whether to attend the talks in a meeting on Tuesday.

Renewed efforts to end the war come amid global angst over the rise of the brutal Islamic State group and an unprecedented influx of migrants into Europe last year.

On Monday, Europol’s chief warned IS “had developed a new combat style capability to carry out a campaign of large-scale terrorist attacks on a global stage — with a particular focus in Europe.” IS claimed responsibility for the November Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

Despite the ramped-up efforts to end Syria’s war, hopes for the talks remain modest.

In addition to the opposition’s disarray, analysts say the regime has been emboldened by Russia’s military intervention.

Moscow began air strikes on September 30, saying it was targeting IS and other “terrorist groups“.

Opposition forces and activists accuse it of focusing on moderate and Islamist rebels, and of killing civilians, an allegation Moscow dismisses as “absurd“.