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Opposition heads to peace talks as more Syrians starve

Syria’s main opposition body headed to Switzerland Saturday to demand progress on the dire humanitarian situation before formally joining peace talks, as the starvation death toll in the besieged town of Madaya rose.

The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) late Friday begrudgingly bowed to US and Saudi pressure to at least show up in Geneva to test the waters for joining the biggest push to date to end a five-year-old civil war.

But the body insisted it will not engage in negotiations, even indirectly, with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime until UN Security Council resolutions requiring an end to sieges of towns are adhered to.

Highlighting the dire situation, medical charity MSF on Saturday raised the death toll from starvation to at least 46 since December 1 in Madaya, one of more than a dozen Syrian towns blockaded by regime or rebel forces.

“We will not sit down at the negotiating table if our people continue to be massacred,” HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet said Friday after the group finally announced its attendance in Geneva after four days of wrangling in Riyadh.

On Friday, the scheduled start of a planned six months of talks under an ambitious roadmap set out in Vienna in November, protesters highlighted the plight of ordinary Syrians with “siege soup” of grass and leaves.

The HNC are also pressing for bombardments of civilians to cease.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that Russian air strikes, which began in late September to support Assad, have killed 3,578 people in total including 1,380 civilians.

The Observatory also reported regime shelling on the Aubin camp for displaced people in Latakia in northwest Syria, in the second such case in as many days.

– Complexities –

A source close to the HNC said that the group was sending 17 negotiators and 25 others to the Swiss city. A 16-member delegation representing Assad’s government arrived on Friday.

Backed by external powers embroiled in Syria’s war, the talks are seeking to end a conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people and fuelled the meteoric rise of the extremist Islamic State group.

Millions of those fleeing the conflict have sought refuge in neighbouring countries and hundreds of thousands have risked their lives to reach Europe, causing political tensions there.

On Saturday, dozens of migrant men, women and children, including Syrians, drowned when their boat sank off of Turkey — joining the almost 4,000 who died trying to reach Europe by sea in 2015.

But the complexities of the Syrian conflict, involving a tangled web of moderate rebels, Islamist fighters, Kurds, jihadists and regime forces backed by Moscow and Iran, pose a huge challenge to the talks, experts say.

“There is every reason to be pessimistic, and there is no realistic scenario in which a breakthrough would be reached,” said Karim Bitar, an analyst at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

The future of Assad, emboldened by recent territorial gains against rebels thanks to Russian support, in any peace deal remains uncertain.

Attacks claimed by IS in Paris, Lebanon, Indonesia and the downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt last year have led Western powers to moderate their demands for him to go, seeing him as the lesser evil, experts say.

– Meeting Sunday? –

For now, no face-to-face talks between the opposition and the regime are expected. Instead “proximity talks” are envisioned whereby UN envoy Staffan de Mistura will shuttle between the participants.

The UN envoy was to meet with HNC delegates “perhaps tomorrow (Sunday)”, HNC spokesman Makhous said.

In a controversial move, the alliance has named Mohammed Alloush, member of the Army of Islam rebel group, as its chief negotiator, but sources hinted he was not among those travelling to Geneva.

Excluded meanwhile, in the initial stages of the talks at least, are Kurdish representatives, with Saudi Arabia and in particular Turkey vehemently opposed to their participation.

Kurdish figures — including Saleh Muslim, head of the powerful Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) — hoping to be included have left the Swiss city after not receiving invitations to negotiations, sources told AFP on Saturday.

The PYD has been one of the most successful fighting forces against the extremist Islamic State group, clearing jihadists out of swathes of territory in northern Syria.

“Without us, this process will have the same fate as the last round of Geneva talks” in 2014, a PYD source told AFP.