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Syrian Drownings Hover Over U.N. Peace Talks


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Some forty bodies have been recovered after an overloaded boat sank in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. That's just the latest tragic news from the migrant trail to Europe today, and it's set against the backdrop of stalled peace talks in the Syrian conflict. Opposition leaders have arrived in Geneva, but it's not clear how much actual negotiating will take place. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been watching all of this He joins us now. Good morning, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: There's been all this back and forth. Will the opposition show up? They finally did. What does that mean? Is that a signal that actual negotiating will happen?

KENYON: Well, it's a step. I wouldn't call it a big one. The Saudi-backed opposition known as the HNC is now in Geneva. They say they've come to insist that humanitarian measures that have already been ordered by the U.N. Security Council are actually carried out on the ground. Agency co-leader Salem al-Meslet told reporters today they need to see food going to starving Syrian children and Syrian women freed from regime jails. And the U.N. envoy, of course, is trying to get all sides together to talk about a political transition.

MARTIN: OK. The delegation from the Syrian government, I understand, has already met with the U.N. envoy. So how are they reacting to the demands put out there by the opposition?

KENYON: Both Damascus and its main ally Russia say it's the opposition that's holding things up. Bashar Ja'afri, head of the Syrian delegation, said today that the government has proved its goodwill, and it's the opposition with all its delays that appears to lack commitment to the talks. We should also note that once political discussions do start, some analysts wonder if this government delegation is even authorized to make many concessions, given the successes the pro-government forces have been seeing on the ground in Syria.

MARTIN: Will the major parties sit down and negotiate directly, Peter?

KENYON: No, they won't. If and when these so-called proximity talks begin, de Mistura and his team will be shuttling between a number of different rooms - one with the representatives of the Syrian regime, one with the Saudi-backed HNC opposition. There's another opposition group endorsed by Russia and then there's women in civil society groups that have been invited, so it will be a shuttle diplomacy.

MARTIN: So much of this seems like political posturing. You have been watching this for so long. What is likely to actually get done in these round of talks?

KENYON: Well, I think your impression is right. At one level, these are talks about getting back to the talks. I mean, if you remember, some Israeli-Palestinian talks from after the second intifada. It seemed after each round, both sides were farther and farther apart. But there are some who hope that it may be possible to get some humanitarian things moving, maybe a local cease-fire, delivery of aid, something of that nature.

MARTIN: We're hearing reports this morning of bomb blasts in Damascus, in the capital of Syria, dozens of people reportedly killed. Obviously, the war is still raging on. Is there any sense that there is optimism among Syrians that this conference will do anything to end the violence?

KENYON: There's not much optimism so far. I mean, we have this report of this terrible deadly bombing in Damascus, scores killed. We have another boat going down in the Aegean Sea, as you mentioned. We have reports of over 1,000 Turkmen fleeing Russian bombardments back into Turkey now here. So de Mistura's mantra, of course, is if this effort fails at the diplomatic table, things are going to get even worse than this.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon. Thanks so much, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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