Syria Talks at Risk of Collapse Over Demands From OppositionHenry Meyer
Assad opponents threaten to quit Geneva talks by week end
Russian air campaign bolstering Assad, who's on offensive
Syrian opposition groups are threatening to pull out of peace talks before they’re barely off the ground as they demand an end to air strikes against rebel-held areas and other humanitarian measures, risking efforts to end five years of civil war.
The High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition group, wants a halt to what it describes as a "massive acceleration" of bombings by Russia and President Bashar al-Assad’smilitary on civilian areas, spokesman Fara Atassi said in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday. A spokesman for the HNC, Monzer Makhous, said earlier that the grouping would quit the talks by the end of this week if its demands are not met.
"The regime’s and Russia’s actions gravely threaten the political process at this early stage," Atassi said.
United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, met with the government delegation, led by the country’s ambassador to the world body Bashar Jaafari, on Tuesday. The HNC didn’t come for a later meeting scheduled with de Mistura over concern about the rising attacks, a representative said on condition of anonymity.
“These efforts to secure preconditions show the unconstructive attitude of the opposition and possibly their intention to block the start of the talks,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters in Geneva. Gatilov met U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson for talks with de Mistura on Monday.
The Syrian war, which has killed about 250,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes, has presented Europe with a rising threat of terrorist attacks and a growing refugee problem. It has also fueled the rise of Islamic State, a militant organization with a stronghold in Syria and Iraq that has spread to Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan.
The talks are an "uphill challenge" because trust between the two sides is almost non-existent, de Mistura told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Tuesday.
The UN-sponsored negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition started officially this week after being delayed over the rebel demands.
Jaafari, the Syrian delegation chief, said his government won’t start to discuss the humanitarian issues until the talks get fully under way. "We are still in the preparatory phase before the start of indirect talks," Jaafari said.
It would be helpful if the Syrian government took some immediate humanitarian actions, such as easing its sieges of rebel-held towns, a Western diplomat said. The next few days could prove critical to the future of the negotiations, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter is confidential.
Atassi, of the HNC, said the escalation of attacks targeting hospitals and infrastructure in Aleppo and Homs on late Monday and Tuesday called for international intervention.
The UN estimates that more than 486,000 people in Syria are living in besieged areas -- mostly in territories held by government forces or Islamic State.
Russia in September started an air campaign that has targeted Islamic State and rebel forces, strengthening Assad’s regime and enabling its military to make significant territorial advances.
Mediators are aiming for a nationwide truce, except for offensives targeting Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and the creation by midyear of a transitional government that includes the opposition. A year after that, elections should follow under a new constitution.