Syria opposition chief joins troubled peace push

3rd February 2016, Comments 0 comments

The head of Syria's main opposition arrived in Switzerland on Wednesday to try to jumpstart formal peace talks, as a defiant Russia vowed no let-up of its aerial bombardment in support of the regime.

Riad Hijab's arrival came as a major push to end Syria's nearly five-year war was on shaky ground after the opposition, outraged at a barrage of Russian air strikes, cancelled a meeting with the UN special envoy on Tuesday.

Representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's government have denounced the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) as disorganised, insisting that formal negotiations have not even begun yet.

The latest Russian bombings since Moscow threw its military might behind Assad in September allowed loyalist forces to edge towards breaking a long-running rebel siege on two government-held villages near the northern city of Aleppo.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday he saw no reason for the air strikes to stop, while slamming "capricious" elements in the HNC and the smuggling of arms into Syria from Turkey.

"Russian air strikes will not cease until we truly defeat the terrorist organisations ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra," Russian agencies quoted Lavrov as saying in Oman.

He was referring to the so-called Islamic State, the extremist group which has overrun swathes of Syria and Iraq and has claimed bombings and shootings worldwide, and to Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch.

The opposition says the Russian strikes have almost entirely targeted other rebel groups, many backed by the West, Gulf states and Turkey, which shot down a Russian jet on its Syrian border in November.

"Russia is using the political process as a cover to impose its military solution on the ground," Salem al-Meslet from the HNC said.

- 'Zero confidence' -

UN envoy Staffan De Mistura's tricky brief is to coax the warring parties in a conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people into six months of indirect talks under a roadmap agreed by outside powers in November.

Since the conflict began in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad's iron-fisted rule, more than half of Syria's population have fled their homes -- many heading to Europe.

The tangled conflict has dragged in a range of international players, from Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states to Western nations and Russia. There has been a brutal crackdown on dissent and the economy is in ruins.

De Mistura said on Swiss television late Tuesday that if the UN-brokered talks fail, "all hope would be lost."

He also told the BBC that "the level of confidence between the two parties is close to zero".

The HNC wants Assad to allow humanitarian access to besieged towns, to stop bombing civilians and to release thousands of prisoners -- some of them children -- languishing in regime jails.

Damascus complains that the HNC has failed to present even a list of its negotiators and strongly objects to the inclusion within the Saudi-backed body of rebels that it and Moscow view as "terrorists".

One such figure is Mohammed Alloush, a leading member of Islamist rebel group the Army of Islam and nominally the HNC's chief negotiator, who said Wednesday he was "not optimistic".

"The problem is not with de Mistura. The problem is with the criminal regime that decimates children and with Russia which always tries to stand alongside criminals," he said, clutching a photo of a young boy he said was severely wounded by Russian air strikes.

- Hijab meets de Mistura -

The HNC was on Wednesday locked in internal talks in a Geneva hotel -- barred to reporters since Tuesday -- to discuss its next steps, after a tense meeting the previous evening, an opposition source said.

An AFP reporter said de Mistura arrived on Wednesday afternoon at the hotel, with a second opposition source saying he was there to meet Hijab informally.

Western diplomats expressed optimism that Hijab, a former Syrian premier who became the highest-ranking Assad defector in 2012, could help the HNC pull together.

"With Hijab here, the HNC can better demonstrate a unified position in representing the opposition," one said on condition of anonymity.

Absent for now from the official process are representatives from the Kurds, which backed by Western firepower have made considerable gains on the ground against IS in recent months.

© 2016 AFP

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