UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. special envoy for Syria expressed hope Tuesday that a first-ever U.N. meeting of feuding opposition groups and an upcoming meeting to put "de-escalation zones" into operation will spur progress at next month's peace talks in Geneva.
Staffan de Mistura told the Security Council that "we are at a time of testing whether the political will exists for real de-escalation and more meaningful political talks and movement beyond preparatory talks."
He said a potentially "significant new development" took place on June 15-16 when for the first time "internal opposition" groups that are backed by Moscow and Cairo and tolerated by the Syrian government met under U.N. auspices in Geneva with the Western-backed opposition delegation to the Geneva talks.
The U.N.-hosted Geneva talks between the parties in Syria are the main political forum for efforts to end the six-year conflict. A seventh round of indirect talks is scheduled to begin on July 10.
De Mistura said the meeting of experts from the divided opposition "brought to light welcome similarities in common, technical, and perhaps even political understanding of various issues, and could potentially be the beginning of a greater technical coordination among these three groups."
He said the participants felt that more work could be productive and his office has invited the three opposition groups to another joint meeting next week.
De Mistura said that since May 4 when Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Kazakhstan's capital Astana and agreed to establish "de-escalation zones" in Syria. "Violence is clearly down ... and many towns have returned to some degree of normalcy," but in some areas fighting has continued and intensified, he said.
And he expressed regret that the significant improvement in security has not led to "equally significant progress" in access to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to areas where the needs are greatest.
Russia, Turkey and Iran signed on to a Russian plan under which President Bashar Assad's air force would halt flights over designated areas across the war-torn country to reduce violence, but details related to the zones and the monitoring process have not yet been worked out.
"With every week that passes without any final arrangement for the de-escalation zones being indeed finalized the fragility of the cease-fire regime, and the risk posed by the fragility increases," de Mistura warned.
He said Russia, Turkey and Iran will strive to finalize details for implementing the de-escalation zones at a meeting in Astana on July 4-5, which he will attend.
"I'm aware of genuine efforts to overcome the remaining obstacles," de Mistura said. "Let's give the de-escalation therefore a fair chance to succeed, because that's what people are asking in order to bring the violence further down and enable confidence-building."
De Mistura said that in his invitation to the parties to the upcoming talks in Geneva he urged intensified discussions on issues related to governance, a new constitution, elections, counterterrorism, security and medium-term confidence building measures.
"I hope it will be possible to accelerate the peace talks," he said. "If the environment is propitious I'm also ready to seek to facilitate direct talks between the government and the opposition — hopefully unified opposition in those talks — either at the formal or the technical level."
De Mistura reiterated that after the seventh round of talks starting July 10 he is aiming for an eighth round in late August or early September, ahead of the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly starting Sept. 19.
"As I see it, the ideal trajectory over the coming two weeks could be — we hope would be — progress in Astana on July 4-5 (and) then a further set of joint technical aspect meeting with the opposition groups in the same week," he said.
De Mistura said he also expects Syria to be one of the subjects discussed by key international leaders including at the summit of the world's 20 leading economies in Hamburg, Germany on July 7-8.
"I hope the combination of these elements would help shape an environment conducive for the next round of intra-Syria talks in Geneva in the months to come, and bring us one step forward on the journey toward our shared goal" of implementing a U.N. resolution calling for a transitional government in Syria leading to a new constitution and elections.