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UN aims to start Syria peace talks on 25 January

In the past week, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing a proposed peace plan
The UN peace talks include 17 countries, including Russia and Iran (AFP)

The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, hopes to convene talks between the Syrian government and the opposition on 25 January in Geneva, his office said Saturday.

De Mistura has "intensified efforts" towards convening the talks on the target date, hopefully including the "broadest possible spectrum" of opposition representatives, the statement said.

The special envoy on the nearly five-year conflict "counts on full cooperation of all the relevant Syrian parties in this process," it said, adding: "Continuing developments on the ground should not be allowed to derail it."

In the past week, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing a proposed peace plan to bring the regime and opposition together for talks in January. But no specific date had been given. 

The plan comes from nearly two months of strenuous efforts among top diplomats from 17 countries, including Russia and Iran – two major players who back Assad. But it does not address the toughest sticking point: the fate of Assad.

The resolution foresees a rapid ceasefire, and calls for talks that would lead to the "establishment of an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers" within half a year.

The death on 25 December of opposition chief Zahran Alloush also appeared to derail a plan to evacuate thousands of jihadists and civilians from southern Damascus.

Alloush, 44, was the commander of Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), the predominant opposition faction in the Eastern Ghouta rebel bastion east of Damascus.

The group has remained firmly opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to the Islamic State jihadist group. 

A senior member of Jaish al-Islam said planes had targeted a "secret meeting" of commanders, confirming Alloush was among those killed.

Backed by Saudi Arabia, Jaish al-Islam was one of the most influential armed groups invited to broad-based opposition talks in Riyadh earlier this month.

Representatives in Riyadh agreed to eventual negotiations with the regime and were set to choose at least part of the opposition delegation for the talks.

Analyst Karim Bitar said Alloush's death is "a severe blow to the Riyadh negotiations process".

"Given Alloush's authoritarian temper and strong rule, it will take time for Jaish al-Islam to recover from this blow and for the alternative leadership to emerge," he said.

Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis website, said: "Those negotiations needed hardliners like Zahran Alloush to be involved for their credibility."

Alloush was a "rare successful centraliser in the Syrian rebel movement," Lund added, and with him gone, opposition cohesion could "unravel".

Abu Hammam al-Buwaydani was elected to replace Alloush just hours after his death, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A 40-year-old businessman and fighter from Douma in Eastern Ghouta, he hails from a family with strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the monitor said.

In his first video address, published Saturday, a solemn Buwaydani said the difficulties faced by Jaish al-Islam "have only made us fiercer".

Syria's regime claimed responsibility for Alloush's death, which was seen as dealing a heavy blow to the nearly uprising in Syria and also complicating the fragile peace process.

Syria's government said on Thursday it plans to take part in fresh talks aimed at ending the war, which has killed more than 250,000 people, but appeared to make its participation conditional on which opposition groups attend.

De Mistura said he was relying on "the continued crucial support of the International Syria Support Group [ISSG]," which also includes the US.

The UN resolution enshrines the plan developed by the ISSG countries in a series of meetings in Geneva and Vienna.

"The people of Syria have suffered enough. Their tragedy is now felt throughout the region and beyond," the statement from de Mistura's office said.

"They deserve the full attention and commitment from all their Syrian representatives, who should now show leadership and vision to overcome differences for the sake of Syria."