NEW DELHI: Warring sides in Syria are set to come together in United Nations-brokered peace talks, meeting in Geneva for the first time in over a year on Thursday, February 23.

The talks -- that took weeks of preparations to bring to the table -- are already beset with problems, as the opposition is demanding that Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s fate is up on the agenda -- something that the Syrian government has refused to discuss.

Although the expectations for a breakthrough remain low, a lot has changed in the year since talks were last held.

For one, the rebels have suffered major losses, losing their key bastion of east Aleppo in December last year. A nationwide ceasefire (barring a few militant groups) is largely holding -- which is a huge first for the conflict ridden country.

The ceasefire was arrived at through Turkey -- a key backer of the rebels, and Russia -- Assad’s most powerful ally. Turkey and Russia have also orchestrated rounds of talks between the government and rebels in Kyrgyzstan, paving the way for the resumption of the peace dialogue in Geneva.

The bottlenecks relating to disagreement on what the talks should entail, along with the failure of past attempts and the continuing violence, have led commentators and stakeholders to say that a breakthrough is unlikely.

Speaking to the press in Geneva, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said is critical that the momentum provided by the negotiations “outpace” those that wished to see the negotiations come to nothing.

“There are spoilers, we have seen it all the time during the last talks and perhaps they may even be attempting or tempted to [do] something before or during the talks to provoke one side or the other to walk out,” he warned.

“I am not expecting a breakthrough, but I am expecting and determined for keeping a very proactive momentum,” said Mistura, highlighted the need to “outpace” those wished to “spoil” the negotiations and see that it come to nothing. “There is a rush between us and the spoilers […] we have to outpace those few but clear spoilers with momentum on the political track,” he added.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Special Envoy for the war-torn country acknowledged that while he is “not expecting a breakthrough,” the proactive momentum needs to be sustained, and the top United Nations relief official told the Security Council that the country’s humanitarian needs would remain critical for a long time.

“As has been stated so many times already, there is no humanitarian or military solution to this conflict,” the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, told the Security Council.

“A genuine political commitment to peace will be needed if 2017 is to offer any different prospect than the death and destruction of the past six years,” he added, emphasizing the need for fighting to stop.

The conflict, now into its sixth year, has left hundreds of thousands of women, men and children dead and millions more dependent on aid both within the country and beyond Syria’s borders.

O’Brien pointed out that the conflict has taken its worst toll on children: thousands have been killed and maimed or have lost their parents to the violence. Many more have suffered physical and psychological trauma, forced into early marriages and lag years behind in school.

“The eyes of all of Syria, and the eyes of the world, are looking to Geneva [where intra-Syrian negotiations will be held],” the UN relief chief said. “Millions of battered and beleaguered women, men and children depend on meaningful action and the constructive engagement by the Syrian parties and their allies […] to assure Syrians that an end to the conflict may finally be within reach.”

The UN is pushing for a resolution to the conflict based on Security Council Resolution 2254 that endorsed a roadmap for peace process in war-battered Middle East nation, including non-sectarian governance, a new constitution and free and fair elections.

The talks are to start with a series of bilateral meetings today, ie. February 23.