UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura informs the media during a round of negotiation on Syria at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Thursday, Feb, 23, 2017. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)
GENEVA (AP) — Syria's opposing sides met face-to-face for the first time in U.N. mediation in three years on Thursday, with the U.N. envoy citing a historic chance to end a conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead, displaced millions and fomented a proxy war by foreign powers.
In a ceremony rich in symbolism, and as violent clashes continued in Syria, Staffan de Mistura convened government and opposition envoys for a new U.N. effort to cobble together a political process to halt suffering for millions of Syrians after nearly six years of war.
"The Syrian people all want an end to this conflict and you all know it," he said in a cavernous U.N. assembly hall, addressing the warring sides. "They are waiting for a relief of their own suffering, and the dream of a new road out of this nightmare to a real and normal future in dignity."
He took note of the presence of diplomats from the International Syria Support Group, which unites regional and world powers and is led by the United States and Russia. But Washington has been in political flux and de Mistura has said there's uncertainty about the Syria strategy of the new Trump administration.
Earlier on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin — arguably the most potent international power broker in Syria's conflict — voiced hope for the success of a political settlement and said it would help defeat the "terrorist malaise." U.N.-designated terrorist groups Islamic State and Fatah al-Sham, the al-Qaida branch in Syria, have been excluded from the Geneva talks.
A cease-fire deal crafted by Russia, whose blistering air power has helped Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces regain key territory, and by Turkey, which supports the Western-backed rebels, has provided the backdrop to the Geneva talks. But that truce is being violated a daily basis.
Cracking through a lack of trust between the two delegations is a primary obstacle, de Mistura told reporters, saying he doesn't expect miracles. He also acknowledged "work to be done" to unite the fragmented opposition.
De Mistura says he plans to hold separate talks with the two sides Friday, trying to devise a plan that could lead to talks over governance, a new constitution, and elections sought by the U.N. Security Council.
But the diplomatic initiative in the Swiss city — known as Geneva IV following three rounds that failed amid renewed fighting last year — comes at a time of new violence on the ground in Syria.
"We face an uphill task. It will not be easy. There is a lot of tension and there is a lot suffering that everyone has been bearing, but we must apply ourselves to this task," de Mistura said. "We do know what will happen if we fail once again: More deaths, more suffering, more atrocities, more terrorism, more refugees."
On Thursday, Nasr al-Hariri, a senior member of the opposition delegation, signaled out Iran as the biggest obstacle to settling the conflict in Syria and urged Washington to stop Tehran. He complained of continued cease-fire violations.
"The guarantor countries, specifically Russia, failed to control the regime and the militias that fight with the regime. They failed to control Iran," Hariri said, referring to another key Assad backer. He said Tehran has "spread tens of thousands of sectarian fighters."
Abdulahad Astepho, a member of the opposition, said rebels would have a greater role in this round of talks, reflecting the changing dynamics inside Syria, where factions are drifting away from the exiled opposition leadership and closer to ultraconservative groups.
On Thursday, activists reported heavy clashes across the southern city of Daraa between pro-government forces and opposition factions headed by a Qaida-linked group. Opposition media agencies also reported government air raids around the Hama countryside in central Syria.
The government has insisted that the cease-fire does not protect al-Qaida-linked groups, while rebels say the agreement they signed in Ankara does. Rebels have found themselves dependent on al-Qaida's battle-hardened factions since 2015 to rebuff government advances around the country.
Meanwhile, Turkish troops and Syrian opposition forces captured the center of the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab, breaking a weeks-long deadlock between the two sides at the periphery of the northern town, according to Turkey's state news agency and Syrian opposition activists.
The seizure of al-Bab after a protracted fight that leveled large parts of the city brings Ankara closer to its stated goal for its months-long operation in Syria: driving IS fighters from the border and preventing Kurdish rebels in the north from linking their territories west and east of Syria along the Turkish border.
It also highlights the complexity of the Syrian terrain. Pro-government forces are just 3 kilometers (2 miles) south of al-Bab, though clashes with the opposition forces in the area have so far been limited.
The Geneva talks are the latest bid to end Syria's catastrophic six-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced some 11 million others to countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and even into Europe.
Footage emerging from the town showed the destructive cost of the battle. At least one of al-Bab's arteries appears completely destroyed, with buildings crumbling or leveled on both sides. Trenches and earth berms have made other streets impassable, and nearly every building showed some signs of artillery shelling or heavy machine-gun fire.
The Assad government has repeatedly decried Turkey's troop presence as a violation of Syrian sovereignty and an act of aggression, but the two sides have not faced off.
Government forces are instead focusing their efforts on forcing the opposition out of positions around the capital, Damascus, and fighting rebels in Daraa, and the Islamic State group in the north and east of the country.
Assad's forces were able to expel rebel fighters in December from a longtime stronghold on the eastern side of the city of Aleppo, which was Syria's economic capital and largest city before the war began.
Speaking ahead of the Geneva meeting, an opposition delegation member told AP that they hoped to achieve "at least something at the human dimension: lifting the siege in certain areas, getting aid to those who are besieged."
"The world has to end this saga. The world has to end these brutalities," said Yahya al-Aridi.
Associated Press writers Philip Issa and Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Beirut.Associated Press