Uneasy truce in Syria, US sets deadline for transition

Sunday 08/05/2016
International efforts con­tinue

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.