Time running out for Syria peace talks

Sunday 22/05/2016
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry

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.