BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations’ Syria envoy met rebel leaders fighting in southern Syria for the first time on Tuesday, their spokesman said, underlining the growing political role of a group helping to contain jihadist influence in the south.
Staffan De Mistura also met representatives of other opposition armed groups earlier this month, another source said. His spokeswoman confirmed both meetings took place but declined to comment on the substance.
The Southern Front alliance controls wide areas of the southern border zone near to Israel and Jordan after seizing important towns and military bases from President Bashar al-Assad’s control.
The alliance, which includes fighting groups that have received support from Western and Arab states opposed to Assad, has the upper hand in the area over jihadist movements such as the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Islamic State which dominate the insurgency elsewhere in Syria.
“We showed him our road map, our vision, how the Southern Front sees the transitional period without Assad,” Southern Front spokesman Issam al-Rayyes told Reuters.
Rayyes said it was not the first time the U.N. envoy had asked to meet the Southern Front, but previous meetings had not taken place for logistical reasons.
When De Mistura began his wide-ranging consultations with dozens of interested parties in May, diplomats were skeptical that his effort to find common ground would bring Syria any closer to ending its four year civil war.
His efforts appeared to suffer an early blow two months ago when 33 opposition armed groups rejected his invitation to come to Geneva to discuss the future of Syria.
But he met leaders of 11 of those armed groups in Istanbul earlier this month, his second meeting with their representatives, a source familiar with the talks said.
“There are sufficient pragmatic voices among them who say we have to work with the U.N. at some stage,” said the source, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.
“They want some sort of guarantees that any political process that he undertakes would involve Bashar al-Assad stepping down. What was interesting was what De Mistura had to say - he focused a lot on the transitional governing body.”
De Mistura is currently visiting Middle Eastern capitals and plans to finalize by the end of July “proposals on a way forward to support Syrian parties in their search for a political solution to the conflict”, his office has said.
Syria’s four-year civil war has killed close to a quarter of a million people and drive millions more from their homes in the worst global refugee crisis since World War Two.
Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Gareth Jones