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World

United Nations Faces Setback In Syrian Peace Talks

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There had been plans to start Syrian peace talks in Geneva today. But that won't happen, and there may not be any direct talks between a wide range of the warring parties for as long as six months. This setback was announced by the U.N. special envoy. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul to talk more. Hey there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: Now we've already two rounds of direct talks where everyone's around the same table. Of course, they didn't get very far. Peter, why is even that now seemingly impossible?

KENYON: Well, there's a lot of different things going on on the ground. The Russian air campaign, the gains by pro-Assad forces have the Syrian government less interested in compromise. But the real problem at the moment seems to be this old dispute - who really is the Syrian opposition? Who should represent them? There have been a lot of lists drawn up about various groups since the last round of talks, those were called Geneva II. And it was all supposed to be hashed out by today and we were supposed to get the third round of talks, but U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura says no, it's not even close to being settled. And instead, he's going to have to be going back and forth between a bunch of groups that don't like each other, and talk to them one at a time and try and cobble something together. Here's how he put it. Listen to how vague this sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STAFFAN DE MISTURA: We are going to aim at the proximity talks starting on the 29th and ongoing for six months on a staggered, chronological proximity approach. This is not Geneva III. This is leading to what we hope will be a Geneva success story if we are able to push it forward.

CORNISH: If we are able to push it forward, that word from Staffan de Mistura. What does he think can be accomplished in these so-called proximity talks?

KENYON: Well, if you want to look on the positive side, this format allows de Mistura to speak separately with a bunch of groups that won't be sitting down together because they don't like each other, such as perhaps the Turks and the Syrian Kurds - who were fighting ISIS in northern Syria - or maybe any one of a number of various opposition factions, including some that are acceptable to the Syrian regime, but not by most other groups. I mean, the idea - I guess you should say the hope seems to be that maybe they can cobble together enough common ground to get the direct talks restarted. And maybe in the meantime, we'll have some good faith measures, pauses for humanitarian aid, things like that. But it's all quite a way short of what we've been hearing earlier - cease-fire, new constitution mid-elections.

CORNISH: Peter, even if they can ultimately find some sort of cease-fire, won't they still face the problem of what to do about ISIS?

KENYON: Oh, absolutely. And that was addressed today as well. And not just ISIS but the al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group linked to al-Qaida also named as a terrorist organization by the U.N. Security Council. Now those two are about the only groups not invited to these rolling proximity talks, as best we can tell. And there's no mechanism for including them in any cease-fire. Now here's how de Mistura put it today, using the acronym ISIL for the Islamic state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE MISTURA: The suspension of fighting, regarding ISIL in particular and al-Nusra, is not on the table. But there is plenty of other suspensions of fightings that can take place.

KENYON: What that all means remains to be seen, but it sounds like expectations are going down, if that's possible at this point. Invitations to somebody will be going out tomorrow, we're told. It'll be interesting to see if all the major players - except already, some opposition figures are setting out preconditions which are not likely to be met.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul reporting on the delay of peace talks to end the war in Syria. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.