U.N. sees chance for local ceasefires in Syria, political talks

By Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations is pushing for local ceasefires in three or four areas in Syria and thinks the escalation in the overall fighting could actually create a chance for political talks, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said on Thursday. Major powers, particularly Russia and the United States, need to speak to each other not only about their military activities in Syria but also about reviving a political process to end the conflict, he said. Syrian troops and their allies, backed by Russian jets that joined the fight this month, began an offensive against rebel positions north of the city of Homs on Thursday, expanding a week-long campaign of ground attacks. Various peace initiatives, backed by the United Nations and world powers, have failed to end the civil war, now in its fifth year. What began with anti-government protests has descended into an increasingly sectarian and regional conflict. But Eliasson said the recent surge in the fighting could remind the warring parties of what was at stake and end up pushing them to the negotiating table. "I don't think the distance between the parties is insurmountable," Eliasson told a news conference in Geneva. "If there is political will now, I think paradoxically we could use a serious part of the risks involved with the present escalation as a good reason to now really also create a credible track on the political area." The fighting in Syria has pulled in a lengthening list of combatants. Syrian government troops, Islamic State and an array of other rebel groups have been joined by a U.S.-led coalition and various allies of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, among them Iranian troops, Tehran-backed militias and Russian jets. Eliasson said local ceasefires would help de-escalate the conflict - a development which could also help pave the way to talks on a transitional governing body in Syria. "In the absence of stopping the fighting all over country, we should at least now, before the winter starts, try to de-escalate and reduce the level of violence," he said. Eliasson said both he and the U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura were encouraging all sides to agree on local ceasefires. De Mistura left Geneva late on Monday for talks in Moscow and Washington, saying Russia and the United States urgently needed to reach an understanding to avert a military escalation that could effectively dismember the country. "The stage we have reached now is to make sure that the military actions, if they continue, are for dealing with a terrorist threat. And by reducing that threat, increasing the possibilities to start the political process," Eliasson said. (Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Toby Chopra and Andrew Heavens)