Uneasy truce in Syria, US sets deadline for transition
GENEVA - International efforts to restart fragile Syrian peace talks continued after an uneasy truce was called in Aleppo but both the government and opposition gave little indication that another round of negotiations could lead to a political transition before an August deadline.
The agreement came one day after US Secretary of State John Kerry issued an ultimatum to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, signalling international frustration at the disruption of the ceasefire and peace process.
“The target date for the transition is August 1st… So either something happens in these next few months or they are asking for a very different track,” he said at a May 3rd news conference.
“If Assad’s strategy is to somehow think he’s going to just carve out Aleppo and carve out a section of the country, I got news for you and him: This war doesn’t end. As long as Assad is there, the opposition is not going to stop fighting.”
The expanded ceasefire went into effect May 4th with the Assad regime grudgingly confirming that it would abide by the enlarged “regime of calm” and the Syrian opposition calling for the truce to be further widened.
“The ceasefire must, without exception, cover all of Syria, including Aleppo. Otherwise it will not succeed,” Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) spokesman Salem al-Meslet said.
The HNC, the main opposition negotiating delegation, called for the international community to work together to enforce the ceasefire and, most importantly, establish a mechanism to respond to truce violations.
The new agreement would see US and Russian military officials working together at a coordination centre in Geneva to monitor and document violations, although it does not include a clear mechanism to punish violators.
The HNC walked out of the previous round of Geneva talks, citing government ceasefire violations, particularly air strikes on hospitals and medical facilities in Aleppo.
The next round of talks in Geneva are expected to take place in May — although no exact date has been set — with many hoping the HNC will attend.
Even if the two sides return to Geneva for talks, many issues need to be addressed, not least the fate of Assad and what any “transition” in Syria would look like. The Syrian government delegation has refused to address the future of Assad, describing it as a “red line”.
HNC coordinator Riad Hijab said the Geneva talks had reached an “impasse” and called for a “new initiative” that did not include Assad.
“For us, it is impossible to discuss the issue of a broad-based or transitional government according to the regime’s definition,” he said, adding that there can be no political solution in Syria so long as Assad remains.
Meslet also called for a new initiative, stressing that, given the August deadline any negotiations must have a “clear agenda” and “specific timetable.”
Although the Assad regime agreed to the expanded ceasefire in Aleppo, it sent mixed signals with an inflammatory statement saying it would accept nothing less than outright victory against rebels in Aleppo.
In a telegram to Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark the anniversary of Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, Assad likened Aleppo to Stalingrad and stressed that Damascus would not accept anything less than “attaining final victory” and “crushing the aggression” of the Syrian rebels, state media reported.
Assad’s delegation has shown little inclination to enter into meaningful negotiations with the HNC over a transition in Syria. The head of the Assad side’s delegation, Bashar Jaafari, described them as becoming “constructive and useful” only after the main opposition delegation had left Geneva.
Jaafari has called for the formation of an “expanded government” that would include opposition representation but also representatives of the current government, including Assad. This is a position the HNC and Syrian rebel groups have said they will not accept.