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Germany

In Berlin, little optimism ahead of Syria peace talks

UN peace talks meant to begin this week were delayed following a dispute over who should represent the Syrian opposition. In Berlin, few believe the talks will bring peace any time soon.

Peace in Syria, Peter Neumann from King's College London told a gathering of parliamentarians and journalists in a packed conference room in Berlin's Bundestag on Monday, was neither "reachable nor achievable." All of the conflict's main parties still believed they could win on the battlefield. "They just don't believe they need to make any painful compromises yet."

At most, peace talks may lead to a much-needed ceasefire, but "any more permanent solution is just not feasible at the moment."

His comments came only few hours after the news hit the headlines that

Syrian peace talks meant to begin this week had been stalled over a row over who would represent the Syrian opposition

- and whether armed groups, including al Qaeda affiliates which many in the West find far from palatable, should have a seat at the table.

Syrian refugees at the Jordanian border (photo: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

More than 10 million Syrians have fled their homes; here, some of the refugees are seen at the Syrian-Jordanian border

The opposition fighting President Bashar al-Assad also wants an end to airstrikes and government sieges of territory they hold, and the release of detainees.

Peace talks to start on Friday

Later, the UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said talks aimed at ending a civil war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people and driven more than 10 million Syrians from their homes would open on Friday.

Yet few believe that the peace talks, the first negotiations in two years to seek to resolve the conflict, will lead to a quick end of the fighting, which has drawn regional and international actors Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon's Hezbollah, a US-led international coalition and, most recently, Russia into the melee.

After 2015 initially saw opposition gains, Russia's intervention on behalf of the Syrian regime tipped the balance of power back in favor of the government.

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Over the weekend, government forces, supported by Russian air power, Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, recaptured Rabiya, a key rebel-held town in coastal Latakia province.

Russia's intervention "changed the situation on the ground dramatically," according to Miguel Berger, who works for the German Foreign Office's Middle East Desk. Fighting, he added, had intensified, forcing ever more Syrians to flee their homes.

Berger agrees with Neumann that the peace process, part of a UN peace plan which calls for a new constitution and elections within 18 months, faces "enormous challenges." Yet unlike Neumann, he remains cautiously optimistic that there is a real political will on all sides to end the conflict - including Russia, which, he believes, will want a way out of a costly conflict that drags on with no end in sight.

'Conflict will drag on for decades'

He points to the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran, which brought Tehran back into the diplomatic fold: "The nuclear deal shows that diplomatic means can solve highly complex problems."

However, the diplomat is worried that tensions between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, which escalated after Riyadh executed a Shiite Muslim cleric, may complicate the negotiations.

Yet even if - and that is far from given - Damascus, the opposition, and their respective supporters manage to hash out at least a ceasefire, the conflict in Syria may still "drag on for years, if not decades," according to Markus Kaim, a security expert from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), a Berlin think tank.

The self-proclaimed "Islamic State" has been weakened and pushed back, but I wouldn't write it off any time soon," he says.

Peter Neumann, who favors drone attacks on IS training camps and leaders, agrees: "Fighting IS will constitute the biggest challenge for the coming generation."

Like Nazi Germany, he added, the "Islamic State" depended on territorial expansion for its survival.:"Once IS is no longer able to expand, then it will collapse."

But that day, most experts agree, is still a long way off.

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