`Fragile' Syria Truce May Allow Peace Talks, U.S. Aide Says

Updated on
  • Cease-fire being breached but has `clearly' reduced violence
  • Human Rights group says 135 deaths in first week of truce

A partial cease-fire in Syria is “very fragile” and “insufficient,” but could be enough to enable the resumption of peace talks if it holds into next week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

“There clearly are violations but also, clearly, violence has diminished,” Blinken said in an interview in Paris, where he met with French officials. “If between now and March 9 we can see these conditions continue, then we have the foundations to resume negotiations on a political transition.”

A “cessation of hostilities” took place in Syria last week after a diplomatic effort led by the U.S., which has backed rebel groups, and Russia, the chief ally of President Bashar al-Assad. So far, it has fared better than past bids to end a five-year war that has killed a quarter-million people, destabilized the region and triggered a mass exodus of refugees to Europe.

In the first week, 135 people died in areas subject to the truce, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its website Saturday. Most deaths were of opposition, Islamist and Kurdish fighters, with 25 government troops and 32 civilians also killed, the group said.

The partial cease-fire plan didn’t envisage a complete halt to fighting, since Islamic State and other groups designated as terrorists by the United Nations are excluded, and there’s little consensus -- especially between the U.S. and Russia -- as to who fits that bill.

Geneva Talks

Still, diplomats are now seeking a broader agreement. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, has invited representatives of Assad’s government and opposition groups to resume talks March 9 in Geneva. Similar negotiations broke off last month after Assad launched a major offensive backed by Russian air-power that threatens to recapture Aleppo, a key rebel-held city.

Earlier Friday, Riad Hijab, the lead negotiator for the rebels, said talks couldn’t take place under current conditions because of continued attacks by the regime and its backers, though he didn’t fully close the door on joining the talks.

“It’s insufficient but it’s real progress, and it needs to be sustained,” Blinken said about the cease-fire. He said humanitarian aid has reached 120,000 people but there are another 350,000 in besieged areas in need of assistance. “But of course if you are on the ground in Syria, suffering, until this is fully resolved, you are understandably not going to be satisfied with the situation.”

Blinken reiterated that Assad can’t be part of an eventual political solution. “Assad cannot win back his people and about three-quarters of the country is outside of his control,” the U.S. diplomat said.

He said that if talks fail, more and more weapons will flow to radical groups and outside patrons will increase their assistance to various factions. “That’s not in Russia’s interest,” he said. “The Russians have to decide whether they work towards what everyone has agreed, which is a political transition.”

Russia has argued that Assad can’t be excluded as a candidate when Syrians decide on their government. It also says that some of the opposition groups labeled as moderates by the U.S. and its allies, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in fact collaborate with jihadist militants.