Staffan de Mistura
Staffan de Mistura gestures during a news conference after a meeting with the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) during peace talks in Geneva, SwitzerlandDenis Balibouse/Reuters

Peace talks to find a solution to the civil war in Syria officially got off the ground in Geneva on Monday (1 February), the UN's special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura said. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – which is the main opposition bloc – said it had a "positive" meeting with De Mistura and is awaiting the outcome of his discussions with representatives from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.

HNC spokesman Salim al-Muslat said: "We came here to discuss with the special envoy UN resolution 2254; lifting the sieges and stopping the crimes done by Russian air strikes in Syria, and I believe we received positive messages." Moscow began conducting air strikes in Syria in September 2015, but has been accused of propping up Assad's regime and targeting his opponents, including groups backed by the US-led coalition.

De Mistura said that he hopes to "achieve something" by 11 February, but "the first immediate objective is to make sure the talks continue and that everyone is on board". It is not yet clear how long the talks will last, given the complex nature of the conflict. De Mistura said: "The duration of the negotiations depends on the willingness and the determination of both sides".

Part of the HNC's demands for productive peace talks include an end to sieges and the bombardment of civilians. Over 250,000 people have been killed in the bloody war, spanning nearly five years. The conflict has seen one atrocity committed after another, including starvation in Madaya, the use of chemical weapons against civilians and the Houla massacre, where scores of children were killed just some of the numerous acts of horror.

Announcements that the peace talks were officially underway came just hours after the UN said that the Syrian regime had agreed "in principle" to allow aid to reach besieged citizens in Madaya, al-Foua and Kefraya.

Some 11 million people have been displaced by the conflict and peace talks are extremely fragile, with the HNC threatening to withdraw if the government does not stop its attacks on civilians. Bashar al-Jaafari is leading the Syrian government delegation and branded the HNC as "not serious" on 31 January.

According to Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for the past three days, regime jets have dropped 60 barrel bombs on Muadhamiya, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. The HNC – backed by Washington and Riyadh – delegation is headed by Mohammed Alloush, who is a member of Jaish al-Islam, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Russia.