Syrian peace talks in quagmire

Syria’s fragile peace talks might not resume for at least a year if they are abandoned now, a senior Western diplomat has warned, as the opposition urged more military support for rebels after declaring a truce was over.

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Intense fighting has left Syria’s partial ceasefire in tatters. The truce was brokered by the US and Russia to pave the way for the first peace talks attended by rebel factions since the crisis began five years ago.

Those talks, taking place under UN auspices in Geneva, also appear to have collapsed this week. The opposition says it has called a “pause” to negotiations, although it is reluctant to accept blame for the collapse by walking out altogether.

“If this ends now, it will be over for at least a year …. The Russians will steamroll – taking advantage of a US vacuum,” the Western diplomat said, referring to fears Washington will be preoccupied by November’s US presidential election.

“There will be three million more refugees and thousands more dead,” said the diplomat, who declined to be identified while describing a scenario world powers still hope to avoid.

“If we all leave Geneva, I don’t see the process continuing.”

Damascus negotiators say the presidency of Bashar al-Assad is non-negotiable while the opposition sees removal of the president as a prerequisite and complains of no progress on an end to violence, humanitarian access and political detainees.

The Geneva talks aim to end a war that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis, allowed for the rise of the Islamic State group, and drawn in regional and major powers. Russia’s intervention in the conflict beginning late last year has swayed the war in Assad’s favour.

The already widely violated truce began fraying more quickly some two weeks ago near Aleppo, where the Syrian army accused rebel groups of taking part in assaults by Islamists who are not covered by the ceasefire. Rebels say they were defending themselves from attacks by the army and its Shi’ite militia allies.

A total collapse of the Geneva talks would leave a diplomatic vacuum that could allow a further escalation of the war that is being fuelled by rivalries between foreign powers including oil producers Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Seeking to ease that rivalry, US President Barack Obama met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on a visit to Riyadh on Wednesday and discussed the need to reinforce the partial truce in Syria and support a transition from Assad’s rule.

France said it would consider with other European powers and the US on Monday the idea of convening a ministerial meeting of major powers in the next two weeks to work out the next steps for Syria.

As fighting raged and air strikes on rebel-held areas intensified, the opposition urged foreign states to supply them with the means to defend themselves, a thinly veiled reference to the anti-aircraft weapons long sought by insurgents.

Anas Al Abde, president of the Turkey-based opposition Syrian National Coalition, said the Geneva talks were “futile” and there was no hope in discussing political transition.

Speaking in Istanbul, he urged “qualitative support” for rebel groups, and said the solution must be a “political-military” one.

On Wednesday experts were meeting in Geneva but the opposition’s Riad Hijab, chief co-ordinator of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, had quit the talks with senior delegates while de Mistura had left for personal reasons.

About half of the HNC delegation remained.

The Syrian government negotiator Bashar Ja’afari poured contempt on the opposition for its partial walkout, accusing it of sulking and political immaturity.

“By leaving they may be taking away a major obstacle that will allow us to reach a solution,” he told reporters.

The US State department rejected that view. “We do not believe that the way forward is any removal by the opposition from these talks. In fact, quite the opposite,” spokesman John Kirby said in Washington.

Kirby called on the government delegation to explain what it meant by its proposed broad-based government of national unity.