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UN declines to confirm delay in Syrian peace talks as it calls for improved aid access

Russia's foreign minister, however, has said the talks in Geneva will be pushed back until the end of next month. Could a delay give Russian and US presidents time to line up their views on the country's future?

"There is no confirmation that the February talks are postponed," Yara Sharif, a spokesperson for Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, said Friday. "We're going to be sure when the special envoy is back" from talks next week with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, she added. 

Her statement rebuts Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's annoucement earlier the same day that the UN-backed Syria peace talks scheduled to take place in Geneva on February 8 would be put on hold until the end of the month. He did not give a reason for the delay.

International leaders had agreed to re-open talks in the UN-headquarter city during the peace talks in Astana that wrapped up on Tuesday with the agreement of ceasefire-maintenance mechanism but without making significant ground in ending the six-year war.

Lavrov's meeting with Syrian government opponents did not include a representative of the High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition coalition group that took part in both the recent Astana talks as well as the Geneva peace talks of 2016.

Aid blockages

What in essence should be a simple, two-step approval process allowing humanitarian aid convoys to enter Syrian conflict zones " has become, in practice, a 10-step process," the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council this week.

"We continue to be blocked at every turn, by lack of approvals at central and local levels, disagreements on access routes, and violation of agreed procedures at checkpoints by parties to the conflict," he added, broadening his critique to also indict non-governmental participants in Syria's ongoing warfare.

Phone date?

Moscow also confirmed that US President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a phone conversation on Saturday.

Symbolbild US-Wahl - Donald Trump & Wladimir Putin (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Thew & A. Druzhinin/Ria Novosti/Kremlin Pool)

Will a change in the White House influence the future of Syrian peace talks?

"I can confirm that a telephone conversation is planned. It will be Saturday evening Moscow time," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday. 

The call, the first conversation between the Russian and American presidents since Trump's entry into office, would cover the "state of bilateral ties," Peskov said. He brushed aside suggestions that the discussion would lead to immediate policy changes, such as a rollback of Russian sanctions .

"This is the first contact by phone since President Trump assumed office so it is hardly likely there will be substantive contact on all issues. Let's be patient," Lavrov said. 

The presidential pair previsouly spoke in November 2016 following Trump's election, signaling the possibility for closer cooperation between Moscow and Washington in what would be a striking U-turn from President Obama's policies towards Russia.

The ongoing war in Syria could be one of the issues the two leaders end up discussing, as Trump has stated he would be open to working with Russia to end the conflict in Syria. However, the American commander-in-chief's plan to create safe zones in Syria for civilians, a move that would likely require ground troops and the creation of no-fly zones, may not line up with stated Russian plans for its military involvement in Syria.

Peskov stated that such safe zones had not yet been discussed between the US and Russia and its consequences "ought to be weighed up."

cmb/sms (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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