Syrian talks suspended as regime, Russia hit rebels hard

3rd February 2016, Comments 0 comments

Talks aimed at securing peace in Syria were suspended Wednesday as President Bashar al-Assad's regime secured a major battlefield victory against rebels and his ally Russia vowed no-let up in air strikes.

"I have indicated from the first day I won't talk for the sake of talking," UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said in Geneva after failing over several days to get peace negotiations off the ground.

"I therefore have taken the decision to bring a temporary pause (until February 25). It is not the end or the failure of the talks," he said, saying "more work" was needed, including from outside powers embroiled in the complex conflict.

The main opposition umbrella group said however that it would not return to Geneva until its demands for the regime to alleviate the dire humanitarian situation in Syria are met.

The UN announcement came as Syrian troops, helped by days of Russian air sorties, cut the last supply route linking rebels in Aleppo to the Turkish border.

Aleppo, Syria's pre-war commercial capital, has been divided between loyalists in the west and rebels in the east since fighting erupted in the northern city in mid-2012.

Assad's forces backed by Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah and other militias encircled Aleppo from the west, south and east, and have advanced from the north since last week.

On Wednesday, the army broke a three-year rebel siege of two government-held villages and took control of parts of the supply route, a Syrian military source told AFP.

The offensive is one of several the government has launched since President Vladimir Putin threw Russia's military might behind Assad, adding to support from Iran, on September 30.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday he saw no reason for the air strikes to stop until the "terrorists" are defeated.

"The regime forces have done in three days in Aleppo what they had failed to do in three years, thanks mainly to Russian support," said Rami Abdel Rahman of British-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

- Tangled conflict -

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 -- hundreds of thousands of them heading to Europe.

In addition the tangled conflict has allowed Islamic State extremists to overrun swathes of Syria and also Iraq, ruined the economy and dragged in a range of international players.

The United Nations said last month that an estimated 486,700 people in Syria were living under siege, among 4.6 million people in so-called "hard-to-reach" areas.

De Mistura's brief is to coax both sides into six months of indirect "proximity talks" envisioned under a November roadmap proposed by outside powers.

But problems beset the Geneva gathering from the outset.

The opposition umbrella group High Negotiations Committee (HNC) arrived several days late, and reluctantly, insisting on immediate steps to alleviate the dire humanitarian situation.

This included aid getting through to besieged cities, a halt to the bombardment of civilians and the release of thousands prisoners.

Riad Hijab, HNC chief coordinator, said late Wednesday that the group "will not return until the humanitarian demands are met or (we) see something on the ground."

He said that the Russian-backed advances on the ground showed that the negotiation was not interested in genuine peace talks.

"The whole world sees who is making the negotiations fail. Who is bombing civilians and starving people to death," Hijab told reporters.

The US State Department said Wednesday that the Russian air strikes were harming attempts to secure peace.

"It is difficult in the extreme to see how strikes against civilian targets contribute in any way to the peace process now being explored," State Department spokesman John Kirby said

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius agreed, saying that "dramatic" events on the ground meant the talks had "little sense".

- 'Terrorist' negotiators -

The government delegation meanwhile complained that the Saudi-backed HNC was disorganised, had not named its negotiators and contained individuals it considered "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 arrived in Geneva late on Monday.

Bashar al-Jaafari, chief government negotiator, blamed the suspension on opposition "preconditions" and said de Mistura announced the break only because the HNC was about to leave.

"Since its arrival... (the HNC) refused to take part in any serious talks with the special envoy," state news agency SANA quoted Jaafari as saying.

The next step is for the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of outside countries to convene, potentially on February 11 in Munich, Germany.

World leaders gather in London on Thursday for a donor conference to help Syrians and neighbouring countries affected by the crisis.

© 2016 AFP

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