Nabih Bulos?and Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times

GENEVA: There will be no opening ceremony, the guest list remains secret and strenuous efforts are in place to ensure that rival delegates are never in the same room.

Such are the curious conditions surrounding the Intra-Syrian Talks, the official designation of fresh peace negotiations aimed at ending Syria’s almost-five-year war — an intractable conflict that has further destabilized the Middle East, morphed into a proxy struggle between regional and world powers and helped trigger a refugee crisis in Europe.

The long-anticipated talks are slated to begin Friday in this Swiss city, under the aegis of Staffan de Mistura, the United Nation’s special envoy for Syria.

The mood could hardly be called optimistic. No one expects a breakthrough. Many fear a collapse — a scenario that seemed possible late Thursday after a Saudi-backed opposition faction, the High Negotiations Committee, said it would not attend.

Riad Hijab, coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee, accused de Mistura of “adopting a Russian and Iranian agenda” in comments to Al Arabiya, a Saudi broadcast outlet.

Both Moscow and Tehran are major supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Both nations also back the Syrian peace talks.

In the run-up to the talks, de Mistura and others have hastened to downplay expectations.

“It’s going to be uphill,” de Mistura, a veteran Italian-Swedish diplomat, told reporters this week.

The negotiating sessions have been deemed “proximity talks,” meaning rival delegations — the Syrian government and the opposition contingent — will be in different rooms while U.N facilitators engage in “a lot of shuttling,” de Mistura said.

Organizers are hoping for some semblance of decorum among adversaries who routinely label each other “terrorists,” “murderers” and sundry other epithets.

“You are not going to have a situation where people are sitting down at the table staring at each other or shouting at each other,” U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “You’re going to have to build some process here.”

The United States and Russia are major promoters of the talks, as both nations want the fighting to end, but they are on opposite sides of the politics behind the Syrian conflict.

The Obama administration, which once insisted that Assad must step down at the start of any political transition process, has begrudgingly come around to the Russian position that Syrians should have the right to decide whether Assad stays or goes in U.N.-organized elections. When such balloting might take place in the war-ravaged nation remains unclear.

Diplomats say the talks are initially likely to focus on incremental gains, such as instituting local cease-fires and facilitating deliveries of humanitarian goods to besieged areas in Syria.

The opposition encompasses a broad range of Syrians, from hard-core Islamist fighters to secular and peaceful dissidents. Some opposition groups loathe each other more than they despise Assad.

The U.N. has declined to identify which opposition figures have been invited to the talks, adding to an overriding sense of mystery.