Syria peace talks set to resume despite truce violations
BEIRUT - Fighting in Syria has fallen off dramatically under a cessation of hostilities agreement that took effect February 27th and the United Nations has scheduled renewed peace talks in Geneva on March 9th if the lull holds, though continued Russian air strikes against rebel forces battling the regime of President Bashar Assad could imperil the negotiations.
Overall, the United States said the ceasefire appears to be holding despite some violations but US State Department spokesman John Kirby said “nobody’s doing any victory dances yet… It’s a very fluid environment.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through a network of activists, reported a recent wave of Russian air strikes in the Aleppo and Hama regions, and Moscow accused Syrian rebels, including jihadists, of repeated violations of the deal.
The Russians insist the cessation of hostilities agreement does not cover forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-affiliated al- Nusra Front and it has continued air strikes against those groups.
The Britain-based observatory said non-jihadist groups have also been targeted in what many see as a drive by Russia to hammer all the enemies of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Moscow’s key Arab ally, under cover of the cessation of hostilities to change the situation on the ground before the Geneva talks resume.
However, Lieutenant-General Sergei Kurylenko of the Russian coordination centre in Syria set up after Russian forces intervened on September 30th, said that, on the whole, the temporary truce is being implemented.
If the cessation of hostilities agreement is successful, it could boost prospects for renewed peace talks, which collapsed in early February even before they began amid a Russian-backed regime offensive in northern Syria that recaptured strategic territory Assad’s forces had lost.
The Geneva talks are generally seen as the last chance to negotiate an end to a war in which at least 260,000 people have been killed and 11 million, half Syria’s pre-war population, have been forced from their homes.
North-western Syria, south of the border with an increasingly alarmed Turkey, is now the main battleground in the most dangerous Middle Eastern war in a generation and one with dire consequences for the entire region and for Europe as it grapples with a tidal wave of refugees.
Despite the lull in fighting, the United Nations reports that 4.6 million people remain trapped in towns under siege or “hard to reach” zones and on the verge of starvation.
As relief agencies step up efforts to deliver food, medical supplies and other aid, such as blankets. to high-risk areas, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein warned that thousands of people already may have died from lack of food.