Steps taken towards Syrian peace talks as refugee numbers skyrocket

The number of refugees in Syria has skyrocketed because of the recent flare-up of fighting around the opposition-controlled western province of Idlib, UN Secretary-General Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen told Russian state news agency TASS in an interview on Thursday.

Further news outlets have reported a “breakthrough” in talks between Perdersen and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about a Syrian peace process.

Forces from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have launched intensive bombing and ground attacks this year on Idlib, the largest rebel-held area in the country.

An agreement signed by Turkey and Russia last September prevented regime attacks on the province, which is home to an estimated 3 million people, including hundreds of thousands of refugees.

However, Moscow has said Turkey failed to live up to its agreement to remove “extremist” opposition groups from the agreement’s de-escalation zone in southern Idlib, after the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham became a dominant force in the province.

Assad regime forces have intensively bombed targets in the province this year with Russian air support, including civilian infrastructure.

"Sadly, we continue to see refugee and (internally displaced people) trends moving in the wrong direction - and the fighting in Idlib is adding, not reducing, their numbers," Pedersen said.

Progress has been made toward peace talks, with pan-Arab outlet the New Arab reporting on Friday that the final six names of a 150-person committee to discuss a new constitution had been agreed on.

The committee will include 50 members each from the opposition and regime. The other 50, to be chosen from civil society and religious organisations, had been hotly disputed, with the dispute of the final six names delaying the formation of the committee until this week, the report said.

On Friday, Lavrov said Russia, Turkey and Iran were discussing a new round of international peace talks based on the format of the previous “Astana” talks, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Turkish Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalin said the new round of talks would take place in Turkey in August, the New Arab reported.

"The meeting will mainly be on Idlib and other parts of Syria, on the general security situation, transition processes, constitutional commission, and re-settlement," Kalın was quoted as saying in the report.

Pedersen told TASS the refugees he had spoken to wanted to return to Syria, but were concerned about their own safety and that of their loved ones if they did.

News reports have said that many returning refugees have been detained and tortured despite assurances from the Assad regime.

Over 3.5 million Syrians are thought to live in Turkey.