GENEVA — The head of Syria’s government delegation on Friday blasted the opposition for statements made ahead of the current round of talks in Geneva, saying there can be no progress in light of such “provocative and irresponsible” statements relating to President Bashar Assad’s future.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Bashar Ja’afari said his team will be leaving the Swiss city on Saturday, and that Damascus will decide whether the delegation will return Tuesday to continue the talks.
The U.N.’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said Thursday that the current round of peace talks is to run through Dec. 15, with a weekend break. Speaking at the first news conference since talks began Wednesday with the arrival of the Syrian government envoys, he cited a “serious and professional” atmosphere between the opposition and government delegations, and pointed to a lack of trust as “the biggest obstacle.”
He touted a “12 points” in the works that could lead to a “shared vision of what Syria could look like” after 6-1/2 years of war that has claimed at least 400,000 lives.
Ja’afari said that the government delegation had put forward in March a 12-point plan, which he said de Mistura had kept tucked “in his pocket.”
On Friday, de Mistrua’s office released the document called “12 Living Intra-Syrian Essential Principles” for post-war life in the country. It was distributed to the government and opposition delegations in Geneva.
The statement said de Mistura has requested the delegations to further reflect upon and offer responses to the document when the talks resume next week.
Ja’afari earlier told reporters that de Mistura had put forward the principles document without consulting with the delegations.
De Mistrua’s office said the principles seek to offer a perspective on the vision of a future that can be shared by all Syrians, but do not address how to realize that vision.
The 12 principles include full commitment to Syria’s national sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and unity, and that the Syrian people alone shall determine the future of their country by democratic means.
It also calls for a “strong, unified, meritocratic and national army” that carries out its duties in accordance with the constitution and the highest standards.
Ja’afari earlier Friday painted a bleak picture of the talks.
He strongly criticized the opposition for its so-called Riyadh 2 communique, issued at the end of a conference in Saudi Arabia to unify the opposition ahead of the Geneva talks.
In that communique, the opposition said it was ready for talks with the Syrian government delegation “without preconditions,” suggesting flexibility it was no longer insisting that President Bashar Assad step down as a precondition for talks. However it said that Assad would need to step down for any political transition to succeed in Syria.
Ja’afari described the communique as “a desperate attempt to take us back to square zero” and said that as long as it’s out there “we cannot move forward.”
He said the communique did not take into consideration the reality on the ground in Syria, which has changed in the past two years in the government’s favor. “The Syrian government is the strong side. Our army is winning.”
“As long as this provocative communiqué is there this means that we cannot move forward,” Jaafari said.
Ja’afari also criticized de Mistura in an interview later Friday with the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, complaining he had praised Saudi Arabia for its role in uniting the opposition and issuing the Riyadh communique.
“No one imposes an agenda on the Syrian Arab Republic, neither Saudi Arabia nor others,” he said.
The opposition’s spokesman insisted it has “no preconditions” in the U.N.-mediated peace talks, while suggesting that a looming walkout by the government delegation “is a precondition in itself.”
Yahya Aridi spoke to reporters shortly before the opposition met de Mistura’s team, telling them that the opposition is looking for a solution that could lead to “political transition” in Syria, which has been called for under a pivotal U.N. Security Council resolution that is underpinning the talks, but which remains a controversial subject between the two sides.
De Mistura credited Russia, which has given powerful military backing to Assad, for a “helpful” role in getting the government to attend the U.N. talks.
Asked about reports that the Russians are pressuring the Syrian government to give concessions, Ja’afari told Al-Mayadeen “the Russians are allies and are not a pressuring factor. We coordinate with them around the clock.”
As the talks in Geneva took place, militants using a missile shot down a government helicopter gunship in the southwest of the country, killing a brigadier general, a colonel and a major according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It said the area where the helicopter was shot down has seen fighting between government forces and several insurgent groups. The incident occurred near the village of Beit Jin that is close to the border with Lebanon.
Ja’afari confirmed the shoot-down in the interview with Al-Mayadeen TV.
The Islamic State group also released a video allegedly showing a Syrian pilot whom the extremists captured more than a year ago being set on fire while alive.
The video released late Thursday allegedly showed Maj. Azzam Eid being chained to a tree while wearing a red uniform before being set on fire. The man could be heard screaming in pain before his body became charred.
It was not clear when the killing occurred and IS did not give further details in the video, which also included old footage of IS fighters in Syria and Iraq.
In April 2016, IS released a video showing what it said was a Syrian government fighter jet that it shot down east of the capital, Damascus. IS said at the time that the pilot was captured alive.
Eid’s fate has been unknown since then.
The killing is similar to that of 1st Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh, a captured Jordanian pilot, who IS fighters burned alive in the northern city of Raqqa in January after his F16 fighter jet crashed in the area a month earlier.
Mroue reported from Beirut.