Peace on ice? Syrian opposition accuses UN of ‘bias,’ suspends Geneva talks

© Reuters
The Geneva peace talks have gridlocked as the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition has withdrawn once again, slamming the UN’s diplomatic mediator for “bias.” The Syrian government has reproved the move, blaming the opposition for derailing the negotiations.

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Accusing Bashar Assad’s forces of violating a Russia-US-brokered truce that has been in place since the end of February and blocking humanitarian access to besieged areas, the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said it was “absurd” to continue negotiations.

“We asked for the postponement of talks, only a postponement until the conditions are right for a resumption of negotiations,” Mohammad al Aboud, a member of the negotiating team, told Reuters.

In the meantime, the HNC has called for a “serious review” of the UN-brokered talks, saying that its suspension will provide time to make necessary changes, while referring specifically to the Syrian President, who it says needs to leave in order for the negotiations to move forward.

The decision “is a chance for all to implement (the relevant UN resolution) and to respond to the main issue, which is forming a governing body in which (President Bashar) Assad has no role,” Riad Agha, a delegation member, posted on his Facebook on behalf of the HNC.

The group has accused Staffan de Mistura of being biased towards President Bashar Assad, urging the UN mediator to “take firm and decisive stances towards the half-solutions being propagated ... by the regime’s allies.”

“We follow with great concern and outright rejection the moves of de Mistura, some of which show a total bias towards ... the demands of the regime and its allies,” a letter signed by unspecified “armed revolutionary factions” read, according to Reuters.

The opposition sees the Syrian Army’s attempts to recapture Aleppo as a violation of the ceasefire.

“All these interventions give a clear indication that the solution in Syria with the presence of this regime has become shut or we have hit a wall,” Mohammed Alloush, the HNC’s chief negotiator, told AP.

The government, for its part, is saying that it is trying to capture areas currently held by Islamic State (formerly ISIS/ISIL), which is not part the cease fire.

Meanwhile in Geneva, de Mistura and his team are trying to remain optimistic, hoping that the HNC members will remain in Switzerland and the talks will continue “in the Palais or anywhere else.” De Mistura acknowledged that there is a “clearly wide” gap between the opposition and the Assad government, which he described as “exactly the nature of negotiations.”

“On Friday we will take stock of the discussions, review what we have come up with, having learned from every side their own positions, and then decide on how and when how to move forward on what is expected anyway to be a series of discussions on and off in order to focus on political transition,” he told reporters.

This time, the Syrian opposition team consists of only three representatives instead of the usual 10-15. They have agreed to engage in “technical” discussions, saying they will be a litmus test for their further participation.

“We will stay until at least the end of the week. If there is some progress, some signs that things will be settled, we will continue. If not, of course we will leave,” HNC member Monzer Makhous told Sputnik news agency.

De Mistura plans to “take stock of the discussions” on Friday, acknowledging that reaching an agreement will not quick. Possibly trying to downplay the significance of the pause, he said there is still “some time” left.  

“As you know, the timetable is up to August. That is what has been so far seen as a timetable for getting a new constitution and getting the political transition. So, we do have some time, not much in history, but we do, and it is certainly not today or tomorrow,” he said, stressing that, despite the gridlock, some progress had still been made.

However, Damascus remains skeptical about the prospects of reaching a much hoped for compromise with the opposition, which it says is not truly interested in political dialogue.

“What the Riyadh faction or the so-called Group of Saudi Arabia announced confirms what we have already revealed to public opinion: the Israeli-Saudi-Turkish will to derail inter-Syrian negotiations in Geneva,” Syria’s Chief Negotiator Bashar Jaafari said. “The Saudi Arabia faction only waited two days to announce this commitment to derail the talks, and this is proof that these negotiators do not have the political will essential to establish a serious and responsible dialogue.”

In Russia, which has long been trying to help Syria put end to its five-year civil war, the HNC’s pause was met with clear disappointment.

“We regret that the HNC’s delegation has halted its participation in the negotiations. This decision is a mistake on their part,” Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Aleksey Borodavkin, said, adding that the suspension proves the Saudi-backed opposition has now been taken over by extremists and had never been interested in finding a political resolution.

“The halt of HNC’s participation in the talks is, unfortunately, an evidence that extremists prevail in the composition of this delegation, which from the outset did not want any negotiations and put forward preconditions and ultimatums, and, in fact, continues to rely on the continuation of the bloody armed conflict in the country,” Borodavkin, said.

As Guardian columnist Jonathan Steele told RT, the Syrian opposition is failing to find unity within its ranks not only on the battlefield, but also at the negotiating table, forcing it to simply refrain from discussions and accuse the government.

“There is a deadlock in the in Geneva peace talks and again, just as the opposition is divided over their tactics on the battlefield, they are also divided in their tactics over the negotiations. There are some people who are unwilling to make any concessions or to sit down with the government of Syria, their delegation, and so they want to break away from these talks and somehow put the blame of the Syrian government for having let the talks fail,” Steele said.