After Two Days, Syrian Peace Talks to Take a ‘Temporary Pause’

GENEVA (AP) -
Syria's High Negotiations Committee, HNC, spokesman Salem al-Mislet, right, speaks to the media during a press briefing during Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)
Syria’s High Negotiations Committee, HNC, spokesman Salem al-Mislet, right, speaks to the media during a press briefing during Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

The peace talks in the Syrian civil war are taking a break. The fighting is not.

U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura announced Wednesday there would be a “temporary pause” in the indirect peace talks between the government and opposition, saying the process will resume Feb. 25.

The delay reflects the rocky start of the talks Monday in which neither the government nor the opposition even acknowledged that the negotiations had officially begun.

“It is not the end, and it is not the failure of the talks,” de Mistura told reporters after a meeting with opposition leaders.

Both sides remain “interested in having the political process started,” he added.

The conflict that began in March 2011 has killed at least 250,000 people, displaced 11 million and given an opening for the Islamic State group to seize large parts of the country from forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

“I’m not frustrated I’m not disappointed,” de Mistura said of the pause. “When you have a five-year war and had so many difficult moments you have to be determined, but also realistic.”

The last round of talks broke down in 2014.

The Saudi-backed opposition, known as the High Negotiations Committee, had been reluctant to come to the talks, saying the government should first end the bombardment of civilians, allow aid into besieged rebel-held areas, and release thousands of detainees.

On Wednesday, delegation head Riad Hajib said the Assad government had not met those demands.

“The HNC delegation will leave tomorrow and will not return (to Geneva) until we see positive steps on humanitarian issues,” he said.

“This regime that ruined the Geneva negotiations in 2014 is doing it again during this political process,” Hijab added. “We came to Geneva to prove to the world that this regime does not believe in a political solution.”

The head of the Syrian delegation, Bashar Ja’afari, said the opposition “had orders from its masters to ruin the talks.”

“Yes, there is a failure. It is a failure of everybody except the government of the Syrian Arab Republic,” Ja’afari said. “Those who have the responsibility of this failure are the Saudis, the Turks and the Qataris. They are the real handlers and the masters of the Riyadh group.”

The two delegations were not meeting face to face but were in separate rooms, with de Mistura shuttling between them in the so-called “proximity talks.” He had scheduled the talks to last six months.

De Mistura said he will ask the U.N. Security Council and the International Syria Support group of about 20 regional and world powers to address some of the pending issues in the talks, including what can be done “to make a difference for the Syrian people.”

He said both sides had expressed concerns about the talks, with the government wanting to address “procedural issues before talking about (the) humanitarian side.”

He said “the U.N. cannot allow simply procedural matters to actually become more important than actually the result for the humanitarian situation for the Syrian people, who have been waiting for us to deliver not a conference but something concrete for them.”

He said he would not directly address the battlefield developments, but that “military activities and other reasons” had made it impossible to make headway on humanitarian issues, such as the lifting of sieges on many cities, towns and villages.

Western powers expressed support for de Mistura and sharply criticized Assad and Russia.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France condemns the “brutal offensive by the Syrian regime with Russia’s support to encircle and asphyxiate Aleppo and its hundreds of thousands of residents.”

In a statement, Fabius said France backs de Mistura’s move to suspend the talks under such circumstances, saying Assad’s regime and its supporters “visibly don’t want to contribute to them in good faith, thus torpedoing peace efforts.”

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby noted that Russia had voted for the U.N. Security Council resolution that paved the way for the talks, noting the measure called on Syria’s “regime and all parties to cease bombings and other attacks on civilians — not eventually, but immediately. Not soon, but now.”

“It is difficult in the extreme to see how strikes against civilian targets contribute in any way to the peace process now being explored,” Kirby said, noting that de Mistura “paused the talks in Geneva in part because of the difficulty of seeking political solutions while humanitarian aid is continually disrupted and innocent lives are taken.”

For the opposition, the government’s advance in Aleppo cast a long shadow over the talks.

BasmaKodmani, a member of the opposition’s negotiating team, described the offensive as a “horrible development,” saying it sent the message that “there is nothing to negotiate. Just go home.”