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Syria: Opposition 'ready to make this a success'
02:18 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The Syrian regime responds to the opposition group's list of demands

The U.N. special envoy has already met with Syrian regime representatives

More than 300,000 people -- including many civilians -- have died in Syria's civil war

Geneva, Switzerland CNN  — 

Dueling sides of Syria’s gruesome civil war are meeting in Geneva in hopes of ending the bloodshed. But they’re not meeting directly with one another.

Instead, a U.N. special envoy is trying to find common ground between the parties before thousands more people are killed.

On Sunday afternoon, special envoy Staffan de Mistura met with members of the main Syrian opposition group, called the High Negotiations Committee.

De Mistura has already met with representatives of the Syrian regime but said that two-hour meeting was mainly preparatory – and that any substantive talks would have to wait until the opposition group arrived.

The opposition group said it was eager to make progress.

“We are here, we are ready to make this a success, we are ready to start negotiations,” High Negotiations Committee spokesman Salim al-Muslat said before the meeting.

Still, the odds against success are formidable.

De Mistura and Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, the U.N. deputy special envoy, started their work Saturday night. De Mistura went to the hotel where the negotiations committee was staying after he flew in. The short informal meeting addressed issues relating to the talks, said a statement from a spokeswoman for the special envoy.

Also on Saturday, Ramzy went to the hotel where the Syrian regime delegation was staying to discuss practical arrangements related to the next steps in the discussion, the Syrian envoy’s office reported.

What U.N. Security Council resolution says

De Mistura is trying to get everyone to agree to a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted last month. It says the U.N. Security Council is calling for:

• An immediate stop to violence against civilians.

• A Syrian-led political process, facilitated by the United Nations, that would establish “credible, inclusive, and nonsectarian governance” within six months and schedule the drafting of a new constitution.

• Free and fair elections, in accordance with the new constitution, to be held within 18 months.

• An inclusive transitional governing body formed by mutual consent.

• Safe access for humanitarian aid groups trying to reach Syrians in need.

The crisis won’t be easy to resolve. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has offered no indication he will step aside. And opposition members continue demanding an end to the 44 years of Assad family rule in the country.

The current talks mark the first time in two years that the warring sides in Syria have met to try to end the war. The goal is a ceasefire agreement among all factions in Syria, except ISIS and al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front – two terrorist groups that have taken advantage of Syria’s instability to gain traction in the country.

Opposition lays out demands

The latest round of talks had been set to begin last week, but it was delayed because of discussions about who should represent the opposition, de Mistura said.

The U.N. special envoy has said his mandate was to involve “the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition.” The High Negotiations Committee includes members ranging from a former prime minister to hard-core Islamist groups.

Opposition members have listed their own demands for the regime. They say they want an end to aerial bombardments; the release of prisoners, particularly women and children; and humanitarian access to beleaguered areas.

“It’s important to us to see that food goes to our children who are starving to death,” said Muslat, the High Negotiations Committee spokesman.

Syrian regime responds

Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian government’s lead negotiator and ambassador to the United Nations, said the regime would consider the opposition group’s demands.

“Absolutely, because this is part of the agenda that we agreed upon, and that will be one of the very important topics that we will discuss amongst ourselves as Syrian citizens,” Jaafari said Sunday.

He said there would be no preconditions, indicating the regime would not do what the opposition asks before the talks are settled.

Jaafari also said it was difficult to discern the terrorists lurking among the opposition.

“We are not holding talks with individuals,” he said “We are not having talks with terrorists.”

He said authorities had “a big gap” in their ability to distinguish the terrorists among the opposition.

More starvation deaths

As parties work toward an agreement, many Syrians are on the brink of starvation.

The United Nations says 400,000 Syrians badly need food.

At least 16 people have died of starvation in the city of Madaya in recent weeks, according to the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders. Those deaths came even after the city received three rare aid convoys of food and medical supplies.

In addition to the deaths, there are 320 cases of malnutrition, the group said.

Help arrives in Madaya, but it’s too late for some

“It is totally unacceptable that people continue to die from starvation, and that critical medical cases remain in the town when they should have been evacuated weeks ago,” Director of Operations Brice de le Vingne said.

Madaya is a rebel-held city that has been choked off by government blockades and landmines.

Opposition activists have accused Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant and political group, of helping the Syrian government’s siege of Madaya. But Hezbollah, in turn, has blamed rebel groups for preventing aid convoys from reaching the town.

Starving in Syria: How did Madaya get so desperate?

CNN’s Nic Robertson and Alex Felton reported from Geneva, and Holly Yan reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Melissa Gray and Nick Paton Walsh also contributed to this report.