Syria peace talks stall as fighting flares up

Sarah El Deeb
Associated Press

Geneva – — Syria peace talks ran into trouble on Monday, with the U.N. mediator saying the opposition has suspended its formal participation in the indirect discussions with President Bashar Assad’s government to protest “worrisome” new violence, especially near the northern city of Aleppo, and rising concerns about the humanitarian situation.

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N envoy for Syria, said he will press on with the talks despite the suspension by the opposition High Negotiations Committee. The HNC said it would no longer attend meetings at the U.N. office in Geneva that has hosted weeks of on-and-off peace talks aimed ultimately at ending the country’s devastating five-year war.

The HNC delegation will remain at their hotel in Geneva, and de Mistura said he will continue “technical” discussions with its envoys by phone or off-site in hopes of firming up a blueprint for a political transition in Syria. He said he would “take stock” of progress toward that goal on Friday.

The HNC, in a statement late Monday, said it had asked de Mistura for a “brief hold in order to end the Assad regime’s truce violations.”

De Mistura has repeatedly said that political transition — as called for under a U.N. Security Council resolution — is “the mother of all issues.” On Monday, he acknowledged a “gap” between the two sides on that issue: the HNC wants no role for Assad in any transitional government, and Assad’s envoys have proposed a “broad-based government.”

The suspension came just hours after Syrian opposition fighters launched a new offensive against government forces in a number of northwestern areas. Rebel groups said attacks in rural parts of Latakia province, a government stronghold, were in retaliation for violations of a U.S. and Russian-brokered cease-fire.

De Mistura said the new fighting in parts of Syria, especially near Aleppo, was “particularly worrisome,” and said that he expected that the U.S. and Russia — who are leading oversight of the truce — will hold a special meeting about it “if this trend continues.”

In a statement, the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama discussed the situation in Syria and agreed to increase coordination between the special services and militaries of the two countries.

The U.S. state department spokesman John Kirby said that the concerns raised by the opposition before pausing the talks are “concerns we share in terms of the lack of some sort of sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance and what are violations of the cessation of hostilities.” He added that despite these violations, the cease-fire had reduced the overall level of violence in Syria.

The HNC’s chief negotiator, Mohammed Alloush, said the fragile cease-fire that started in late February “has effectively been ended by the regime.” He said government forces carried out 70 air raids on Sunday, Iran had sent in two new fighting groups to help reinforce Assad’s troops, and Russia has supplied Syrian soldiers with weaponry.

“All this intervention gives a clear indication that the solution in Syria, with the presence of this regime, has become shut — or we have hit a wall,” he told the Associated Press.