Syrian Cease-Fire at Risk as Peace Talks Resume in Geneva

  • U.S. warns political process at risk from truce violations
  • Russia urges West, allies to put pressure on Assad opposition

Truce violations by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are threatening a six-week-old cease-fire in Syria and peace talks aimed at ending five years of war, the U.S. warned, as Russia urged Western powers to pressure the country’s opposition to strike a compromise.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

As Syrians in government-held areas voted in elections disputed by Assad’s opponents on Wednesday, United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura met the main opposition group in Geneva. After shuttling between Damascus and Syria’s patrons Russia and Iran, he’ll hold talks with Assad’s government delegation later this week and then both sides separately in what he called “crucially urgent” discussions about a political transition. The U.S. and Russia, who are driving the peace efforts, have set an August deadline for a deal.

The U.S. is “very alarmed” by Syrian statements that they are preparing a joint offensive with Russia on rebel-held Aleppo, the most populous city, its ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said on Tuesday. It’s clear that if the Syrian government doesn’t stick to the truce, “the political process will have little chance of success,” she said.

While Russia and the U.S. have brokered a partial cease-fire, which doesn’t apply to Islamic State or the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front, disagreement over Assad’s future has stymied a broader settlement. The U.S. is pushing for the eventual departure of the Syrian leader, while Russia is continuing to back him. The conflict, which has killed 250,000 people and forced millions from their homes, has sparked Europe’s biggest migrant crisis since World War II and allowed Islamic State to plot the deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels.

Disputed Ballot

The UN-sponsored peace talks are due to culminate in early elections in 2017 under a new constitution, but the opposition says Wednesday’s legislative ballot could sink the political process.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said on Wednesday that the opposition, which is demanding that Assad quit, has to let go of its “dream” of a transitional government, the Associated Press reported. Assad has offered to form a government of national unity that Western nations say would only provide his opponents a token role.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday called on Western powers and their regional allies to put pressure on the opposition to strike a compromise. He defended Assad’s decision to hold the parliamentary ballot as scheduled every four years, saying the move is needed to avoid a vacuum of power in Syria.

“Both Syrian sides need to show flexibility to reach an agreement and all outside players have a responsibility to press them to accept the principles we’ve agreed on,” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

‘Red Line’

Russia says Assad’s fate is for the Syrian people to decide, while Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Saturday that the removal of Assad is a “red line” for the Islamic Republic.

There is also disagreement over the truce. Russia says cease-fire violations have been reduced but the U.S. and its allies say that Syria is provoking increased violence. On Tuesday, France warned against the consequences of government offensives, including around Aleppo, saying Assad and his allies will hold responsibility for “a new humanitarian drama and the failure of the political negotiations.”

De Mistura told reporters on Wednesday in Geneva that while the truce is still holding, there are serious incidents. “If they are too often repeated, that could at least deteriorate the spirit and confidence in it.”

Dozens of soldiers from the Syrian army and allied militiamen were killed in fighting with Nusra and Islamic rebels in the south of Aleppo, the opposition U.K.-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory said on its website on Tuesday.

A top Russian military commander, Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, said Monday that Syrian government forces backed by Russian air cover were responding to a Nusra assault involving 10,000 fighters aimed at cutting off the main road between the capital and Aleppo. “No storming of Aleppo is planned,” he said.

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