Syrian Opposition Walks Out of Peace Talks as Fighting Rages

  • Opposition HNC will stay in Geneva, may hold technical talks
  • UN envoy says August is still target date for Syria peace deal

Syrian opposition body members attend a peace talks meeting on April 18. Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Syria’s main opposition group suspended its formal participation in peace talks in Geneva as clashes raged in the most serious threat to a seven-week cease-fire, which is putting at risk efforts to end the country’s five-year civil war.

The opposition High Negotiations Committee is taking a pause to show “displeasure and concern” over what it sees as the deterioration of the humanitarian situation and the truce, particularly around the strategic city of Aleppo, the United Nations’ envoy, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters on Monday in Geneva.

Fighting has surged as rebel groups seized areas in the northwest of the country while President Bashar al-Assad’s forces led an offensive, including near opposition-held Aleppo, once the most populous city. The UN last week resumed what it called “crucially urgent” peace talks in the Swiss city to end the conflict in Syria.

The opposition won’t rejoin the talks formally until the government respects the cease-fire and allows humanitarian access, Monzer Makhous, a member of the HNC, said in an interview in Geneva.

‘No Sign’

“There is no sign that the Syrian regime wants to arrive at a solution,” he said.

De Mistura called on the U.S. and Russia, the two co-sponsors of the peace process, to take the lead in putting the Syrian negotiations back on track. While the HNC won’t come to the UN offices, opposition leaders will stay in Geneva and may hold “technical discussions,” he said.

The war has killed 250,000 people and forced millions from their homes, sparking Europe’s biggest migrant crisis since World War II, and enabled Islamic State to gain control of territory from which it plotted deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama held phone talks focused on the Syrian crisis at the U.S. initiative, the Kremlin said by e-mail on Monday. The two sides agreed to step up coordination, including military, to strengthen the truce and improve humanitarian access, according to the statement.

Under Strain

The U.S. last week urged Russia to help stop the government offensive backed by Russian air power near Aleppo. Russia has insisted it’s observing the truce and any military actions it takes are in response to terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front. The cease-fire doesn’t apply to Islamic State or Nusra.

Complicating the picture, Ahrar as-Sham --a group that has signed up to the truce -- joined in attacks by Nusra in the coastal area of Latakia, according to the U.K.-based opposition monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Putin called for a clear distancing between the armed opposition and terrorist organizations as well as the closing of the Syrian border with Turkey to prevent the movement of weapons and fighters belonging to extremist groups, the Kremlin said.

‘Clearly Wide’

The goal remains for a deal by August, according to de Mistura. While the gap is “clearly wide” between the Syrian government and the opposition with neither side ”yielding a comma,” the idea of political transition isn’t dead, he said.

“The cessation of hostilities is holding in many areas,” though the increase in fighting “is particularly worrisome,” the UN envoy said. “We shouldn’t dramatize things. What’s needed is to be able to continue what’s going to be a complicated process with ups and downs.”

The threatened breakdown of the talks followed a similar crisis during an earlier round at the end of January, when a Russian-backed offensive near Aleppo prompted the UN to suspend the negotiations. They resumed in March after the U.S. and Russia brokered a partial cease-fire.

The political process remains deadlocked, with Assad’s future remaining the toughest issue to overcome in the peace talks, which are intended to lead to an interim power-sharing administration and culminate in elections in 2017 under a new constitution.

Syria has said opposition calls for Assad, 50, to leave the office he’s held since 2000, are a “red line.” Opposition leaders say that neither the embattled leader nor close associates who have been involved in killing Syrian citizens can remain in power during a transitional phase.

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