Syria peace talks stall amid fears of renewed conflict
GENEVA - Peace talks to resolve Syria’s more than five-year conflict have stalled amid fears of the collapse of a fragile ceasefire between the government and opposition factions, leading to concerns about what happens next.
The main Syrian opposition delegation, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), announced it was indefinitely postponing its attendance at the proximity talks due to accusations that government forces were escalating military activities, including air strikes. Attacks hit two markets in rebel-held areas of Idlib, killing more than 40 people on April 20th.
“This massacre of innocents… shows the true face of the Assad regime — utterly brutal, totally careless of human life. It is a dangerous escalation of an already fragile situation,” HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet said.
The HNC complained of a military build-up and renewed clashes around the rebel-held city of Aleppo in violation of the UN-brokered cessation of hostilities. “Assad is telling the world he has no interest in diplomacy for peace but is determined to go on killing Syrians with impunity… We don’t see a serious partner here in Geneva, so it’s no use sitting here,” Meslet said.
The latest round of talks between the government and opposition delegations had not been going well even before the latest outbreak of violence, with the two sides failing to make progress on the issue of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s future role in the country and the composition of a future transitional government.
The air strikes, which hit markets in Maarat al-Numan and Kafr Nubl, marked a final straw for the opposition, which condemned the Assad government for “pretending to negotiate while escalating the violence”.
Despite walking out of the talks, the HNC said it would keep technical experts in Geneva until April 24th, the scheduled end of the current round of talks, to continue discussing humanitarian access and the release of detainees.The government delegation said it would continue talks with the other opposition representation, including the Kurds, who are still in Geneva.
The inability to make progress in the talks leaves many wondering about the viability of the UN-brokered peace process.
UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura sought to downplay fears that this signalled the end of the peace process, saying the next round of peace talks would go ahead as scheduled, likely starting on April 27th. The HNC did not commit to attend the next round of talks.
“There is also lots of diplomatic posturing and it’s normal,” he said. “That is to say, propose things that are more difficult to accept and leave and come back, leave and come back, leave and come back.
“We cannot let this [the talks] drop. We have to renew the ceasefire. We have to accelerate humanitarian aid and we are going to ask the countries that are the co-sponsors to meet.”
If current negotiations break up completely, many observers have said that would end hopes for a negotiated peace settlement in the near future. With the United States gearing up for presidential elections, there is a perception that Syria will become less of a priority.
“If this ends now, it will be over for at least a year… The Russians will steamroll, taking advantage of a US vacuum,” a Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
“There will be 3 million refugees and thousands more dead… If we all leave Geneva, I don’t see the process continuing,” he warned.
Senior US and Syrian opposition officials claim Russia has positioned artillery near Aleppo and bolstered its forces in Syria with advanced helicopter gunships, despite withdrawing some fixed-wing aircraft in March and announcing a reduction of its forces from the country.
“We think it would be negative for Russia to move additional military equipment or personnel into Syria,” US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said during an April 21st news briefing.
There are fears that both sides could abandon negotiations and focus on the military solution, with a recent Wall Street Journal report claiming that Washington could be ready to provide moderate opposition forces with much more sophisticated weapons if the truce collapses.