Syria peace talks in trouble after intense Russian strikes
The latest push to end Syria's tangled conflict was in fresh disarray Tuesday as the government denied formal talks had begun and the opposition cancelled a meeting with the UN envoy following intense Russian air strikes.
The main opposition umbrella group attending the biggest effort yet to end the war called Russia's bombardment near Aleppo -- with 270 raids since Monday morning, according to monitors -- "unprecedented".
"Since last night a big massacre is taking place in Syria and nobody is doing anything. Nobody is saying anything, the international community is completely blind," said Salem al-Meslet from the High Negotiations Committee (HNC).
On Monday, UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura had declared that indirect talks between the government and the opposition had officially begun in Switzerland, saying he hoped to "achieve something" by February 11.
But chief government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari on Tuesday shot this down, saying the talks were still "in a preparatory phase", that the opposition had failed to even name its negotiating team and that there was no agenda.
"We are still in the preparatory phase for indirect talks ... We still don't know who the opposition delegation is," Jaafari told reporters after meeting de Mistura, the third UN envoy for Syria since the war began in March 2011.
The HNC then cancelled a meeting with de Mistura scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
"At this moment, there is no reason to repeat ourselves with de Mistura," said HNC member Farah Atassi.
The HNC has demanded the regime allow humanitarian access to besieged towns, stop bombing civilians and release thousands of prisoners -- some of them children -- languishing in regime jails.
It also expressed outrage at the regime offensive, backed by Russian jets and allied militants, that allowed government forces to edge closer to breaking a long-running rebel siege on two government-held Shiite villages in Aleppo province.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said at least 18 civilians had been killed in the raids on Tuesday, including five women, three children and two emergency workers.
"We have never seen things like this since the beginning of the revolution," HNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani said, calling the air raids "unprecedented".
"The regime's and Russia's actions gravely threaten the political process at this early stage," fellow HNC member Atassi said.
- The war on IS -
Since the conflict began in March 2011, more than 260,000 people have died and more than half of Syria's population have fled their homes.
The conflict has dragged in a range of international players, from Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states -- the latter two on the opposition side -- to Western nations and, since late September, Russia.
The chaos has also fuelled the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group which has overrun swathes of Syria and Iraq and staged a series of deadly attacks across the globe, including in Paris in November.
The extremist Sunni Muslim group claimed responsibility for multiple blasts on Sunday on a revered Shiite shrine south of Damascus that killed at least 70 people.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Rome on Tuesday meeting foreign ministers from the US-led coalition against IS to discuss efforts to combat the group.
In a November meeting in Vienna, world powers agreed on an ambitious roadmap that foresees six months of intra-Syrian talks, leading to a new constitution and free elections within 18 months.
But it left unresolved the future of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
- 'Terrorist' negotiators -
Assad's government is objecting to the inclusion in the Saudi-backed HNC of certain rebels it denounces as "terrorists", a stance supported by Moscow and by Iran, Riyadh's arch rival.
One of these is Mohammed Alloush, a member of the powerful Army of Islam armed rebel group who arrived in Geneva late Monday to act as the HNC's chief negotiator.
Speaking in Abu Dhabi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that if members of any such groups "take part in negotiations... (they) will do so in a personal capacity," Interfax reported.
Outside powers were also in Geneva keeping a close eye on proceedings, with Jaafari reportedly meeting with the Russian ambassador, Western envoys in contact with the opposition and US and Russian officials in discussions.
A Western diplomat said the HNC would likely meet with de Mistura on Wednesday and that the UN was considering meeting the opposition and the government delegations on alternate days.
© 2016 AFP