UN could take charge of captive exchanges seen as critical to peace, to ensure named detainees are not mistreated
The United Nations may appoint a specialist to supervise the release of Syrian detainees, and ensure the naming of the detainees does not lead to their harm or to their relatives being attacked.
Syrian captive exchanges, seen as critical to further confidence-building between the parties in the five-year civil war, were identified as a priority at last weeks session between Vladimir Putin and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, in Moscow. They were repeatedly raised at the Geneva peace talks last week, but with little sign of progress.
A western envoy said: I am confident that the United Nation has a plan for this, including commitments that if prisoners and detainees is named he will not be mistreated and will be handled by international norms. There needs to be a system.
There is a danger that if anyone is named the regime then knows they are of value to the opponent, and there is a likelihood they will be mistreated.
In the past names were suggested for release, people got hurt in detention and none of it was very happy. This time a lot more thought is going into how you do no harm to detainees. There needs to be a lot more care, discretion and more of a UN-led process.
The aim is to develop a system that has more integrity than only banging the table and demanding people release.
The initial focus will be on girls, children and the injured. It is not clear how many pro-Assad troops have been detained by the opponent because of the difficulties of obtaining accurate figures for missing or jailed individuals. An Amnesty International report released in November found that at least 65,116 people had been forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime since the mass demonstrations of 2011 that morphed into a civil war that has killed more than 250,000.
The Geneva talks have been suspended until 9 April at the earliest, but the UN Syrian special envoy Staffan de Mistura is keen to maintain momentum in the interim.
The release of detainees is seen as the third leg in confidence-building alongside extending humanitarian aid and keeping the cessation of hostilities alive.
A western diplomat warned against complacency over the ceasefire, saying: If the violations turn into a trend it will come from the regime. I do not find an craving among the opposition to damage the cessation unilaterally.
If the cessation degrades and maintains degrading there will have to be amplification of force-out on the regime. It is obvious where that pressure will come from and it will then be for Russia to say, We are not interested in continued instability in Syria, and if Assad takes no notification it will wholly withdraw its support.
Russia is continuing to disengage its forces since the astonish withdrawal announcement and, following the recapture of Palmyra, attention will turn to the degree of joint US-Russian cooperation in the drive to Raqqa, deemed the headquarters of Islamic State in Syria. Western envoys say the aim must be to avoid a competitive race for Raqqa.
The April Geneva talks are due to last a further two weeks, reconvening in May, and is concentrated in political transition inside Syria, an issue the Syrian government delegation is reluctant to discuss since it insists that Assads future is not up for negotiation in the talks.
De Mistura will aim to find a way to steer the talks to transition without the Syrian opponent saying such a discussion is only possible if Assads departure at the end of the process is mutually agreed at the outset.
Russias deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, was quoted as went on to say that the US understood Moscows position that he should not discuss Assads future at the moment.
Western diplomats regard the high negotiations committee, the umbrella group representative of main opposition groups, as having become more sophisticated than before, and say it is aware that it must focus on the detailed mechanics of political transition such as the role of the army, federalism and a new constitution.
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