Syria Talks Risk Further Delay, as Opposition Appeals to U.N.

BEIRUT (Reuters) -
Russian warplanes fly in the sky over the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, Syria January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
Russian warplanes fly over the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, Syria, Thursday. (Reuters/Omar Sanadiki)

Talks to end Syria’s civil war risked being delayed for the second time this week as the opposition stuck to its demands for an end to air strikes and blockades and said on Thursday it was waiting for a response from U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.

The opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) blamed those responsible for “bombardment and starvation of civilians,” meaning the Syrian government and its allies, for obstructing the start of talks to end a five-year war that has killed a quarter of a million people.

The talks, the first in two years, were meant to start in Geneva on Monday, but the United Nations has pushed them back to Friday to allow more time to agree to the list of participants, some of whom are regarded by the Syrian government as terrorists. More time is needed to persuade the opposition to engage.

But even a Friday start looks increasingly unlikely unless diplomacy can achieve a major breakthrough in the coming hours.

“We are serious about taking part … but what is hindering the start of negotiations is the one who is bombing civilians and starving them,” HNC spokesman Salim al-Muslat said.

An opposition source familiar with the HNC’s talks this week in Saudi Arabia said it was waiting for a response from the U.N. Secretary-General over its demands, which are also part of a U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Dec. 18.

The source said the opposition had already received a response from U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura, who had told them that he did not have the authority to implement the resolution. De Mistura’s office was not immediately available to comment.

The United States, whose Secretary of State John Kerry is among those pushing for negotiations to get started on Friday, urged Syrian opposition groups to seize the “historic opportunity” and enter talks without preconditions to end the war, which has also displaced more than 11 million people.

In the three days since the talks were rescheduled, the Syrian government and its allies have made further advances in western Syria, building on gains achieved in recent months with the backing of Russian air power.

Preparations for the talks have been beset by problems, including a dispute over who should represent the opposition.

Damascus and its chief allies, Moscow and Tehran, object to the inclusion of groups they consider terrorists in any peace talks, and have criticized the HNC, which includes Saudi-backed and other foreign-backed groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.

Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on Thursday his country strongly opposed moves by Saudi Arabia to allow “terrorists in a new mask” to sit down for talks.

A powerful Kurdish party, the PYD, has been excluded from the talks, in line with the wishes of Turkey, which views it as a terrorist group. That has led to a boycott by at least one prominent dissident, Haytham Manna.

Earlier this week the Syrian army took a strategic town in the southern province of Dera’a, securing its supply routes from the capital to the south, a monitoring group said, days after retaking more territory in Latakia province, Assad’s heartland.

The United States, which supports moderate Syrian insurgent groups, insisted that the opposition should attend the talks on Friday and go without preconditions.

“Factions of the opposition have an historic opportunity to go to Geneva and propose serious, practical ways to implement a cease-fire, humanitarian access and other confidence-building measures, and they should do so without preconditions,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday.

Syria’s opposition has said it has come under pressure from Kerry to attend the talks in order to negotiate over the very steps which it says must be implemented beforehand.

The Syrian government has said it is ready to take part in the Geneva talks.

Even if talks get under way, they face huge underlying challenges, among them disagreements over Assad’s future and tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.