Time running out for Syria peace talks
LONDON - Peace talks between Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition appear no closer to resumption with time running out ahead of an August 1st deadline for the Syrian president to depart even after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) met in Vienna.
International partners agreed a number of measures to address Syria’s deteriorating humanitarian situation during an ISSG meeting May 17th but were unable to set a date to resume stalled peace negotiations.
The meeting, hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, sought to “solidify” the cessation of hostilities reached in February. The ISSG warned that if the 11-week ceasefire failed, it could lead to a return to all-out war and called on international partners to do everything possible to ensure the truce and return the Syrian sides to negotiations.
“If the commitments of the parties to the cessation are not implemented in good faith, the consequence could include the return of full-scale war,” the ISSG communiqué said.
The ISSG is a group of countries and agencies involved, on different sides, in the Syrian conflict. It includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey — staunch opponents of Assad — and Russia and Iran, his closest allies.
Talks between the Syrian government and opposition stalled in April after the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) walked out, citing the government’s refusal to abide by the terms of the ceasefire, particularly over government air strikes targeting hospitals and medical facilities in the northern city of Aleppo. Neither side attended the ISSG meeting in Vienna.
Aleppo has since been added to the areas covered by the cessation of hostilities, although the truce was reportedly fraying in other areas, with UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura saying that the ceasefire was only holding at 50%.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported major clashes in Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, between rival rebel groups, including one backed by al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front not covered by the cessation of hostilities. Assad’s forces have also been carrying out air strikes in Deraa and Idlib, areas where al-Nusra Front is known to have positions.
Under the terms of the cessation of hostilities, both the government and opposition can attack al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (ISIS). However, in some areas of Syria, such as Aleppo, al-Nusra Front is fighting alongside Syrian rebel forces against government troops and the Syrian opposition has accused Damascus of attacking Syrian groups under the pretext of attacking al-Nusra Front.
“We need to bear in mind that intra-Syrian talks will become credible when… there is a credible development on the cessation of hostilities and a credible improvement on the humanitarian side,” de Mistura said during a news conference with Kerry and Lavrov.
“We can re-launch the talks… because it is clear there is no military solution. But we need to do it soon, not late, otherwise we lose the momentum,” de Mistura said, calling for more international effort to restart the Geneva talks. “There is hope,” he added.
French Foreign Minister Jean- Marc Ayrault said the objective was to resume talks in June, although fasting for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is set to begin June 6th. While Ramadan is not expected to result in a lull in fighting on the ground, few analysts say that any meaningful progress in talks could take place during the holy month.
Kerry had earlier mooted an August 1st deadline for the start of a post-Assad political transition, warning the Syrian president and his backers that “either something happens in these next few months or they are asking for a very different track”.
Even if talks resume, the government delegation has shown little interest in discussing Assad’s future, with the opposition adamant that any political deal to end the conflict must include the Syrian president stepping down from power.
Although the ISSG did not make progress on restarting the talks, it did agree to coordinate airdrops by the World Food Programme to besieged areas.
“This is a very important step forward, not only because it will save countless thousands of lives on the ground, but also potentially because it will save the political process,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said.