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Syria talks in Geneva overshadowed by questions over Assad's future

The Geneva peace talks aimed at bringing an end to the war in Syria opened on the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict. The future role of President Bashar al-Assad after a transition to peace remains unclear.

Staffan de Mistura

Special envoy for the Syria crisis Staffan de Mistura said that a roadmap to peace should be in place by the middle of the year

The talks in Geneva mark the latest attempt at ending the war in Syria which to date has killed more than 270,000 people while displacing millions. The

last round of such talks

had collapsed on February 3, 2016, largely due to disagreements on Assad's future role in the country and the unlikely

prospect of fair elections

being held within

18 months

.

A temporary ceasefire introduced on February 27, 2016, has been held up in wide parts of the country, allowing aid to reach some 150,000 living under siege.

But shortly before the negotiations were due to start, US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian leadership of "clearly trying to

disrupt the process

" for saying that the removal of the regime would remain a "red line" not to be crossed, according to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallam. Kerry also urged Syria's key ally Russia to bring Damascus into line on this particular issue.

Walid al-Moallam

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallam insists that President Bashar al-Assad remains in power after a peace deal

Salem Mislet, spokesman of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) indicated that the Syrian opposition would only discuss the establishment of a transitional governing body in which President Bashar Assad and his associates would have no role.

"The Syrian people have submitted half a million martyrs not to keep Assad in power for a longer period but in order to terminate his presence, and to put an end to the suffering of the Syrian people and also to put an end to the terrorism that targeted the region," he declared.

France's new Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault added that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallam's refusal to discuss deposing Assad amounted to a "provocation" in the peace efforts for Syria.

"There will be no political process if the opposition is not closely involved and confident," he said.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations' special envoy for the Syria crisis, warned that there was no alternative to bringing the Syrian crisis to an end through the talks.

"The only Plan B available is a return to war - and an even worse war," de Mistura said at the start of the talks.

Watch video 02:28

Syria ceasefire highlights horrors of war

Five years on, no end in sight

The success of the Syrian peace talks largely hinge upon cooperation among regional and international powers as well. Iran and Russia have been delivering weapons to the Syrian regime, while the US, Europe, and Saudi Arabia have been backing the opposition, including the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

John Kerry

US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian leadership of refusing to cooperate

However, about half of Syrian territory remains controlled by jihadists from the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) organization or the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front. Syrian government forces have recently advanced on the ancient city of Palmyra, held by IS, while continuing to clash with jihadists and rebels in other parts of the country.

Syria's conflict had begun on March 15, 2011, with a peaceful protest movement calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. But the uprising turned violent after government forces launched a brutal crackdown on dissidents, fracturing the opposition into various armed groups.

Both the US and Russia remained hesitant to become involved in the complex conflict. When the United States finally decided to get militarily involved in Syria in September 2014 with a bombing campaign against IS, Russia waited a year to launch its own airstrikes backing Assad after a string of losses for the Syrian regime in the first half of 2015. This became a major turning point for pro-Assad forces, allowing his military to gain back ground.

Clashing interests between Russia and the US have dubbed the conflict a new "Cold War" as Moscow and Washington continue to expand their influence in the region in what could be seen as a proxy war, drawing in regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Sertan Sanderson/rc (AFP, AP)

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