UN scrambles to sustain Syria talks; Russia vows to crush “terrorists”

Thursday, 4 February 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

sdsU.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura gestures during a news conference after a meeting with the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) during the peace talks at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland - Reuters

Reuters: The United Nations strained to keep faltering Syrian peace talks alive on Wednesday as Damascus tried to press home gains against rebels and its ally Russia said its air strikes would go on until “terrorists” were defeated.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura announced the formal start on Monday of the first attempt in two years to negotiate an end to a war that has killed 250,000 people, caused a refugee crisis in the region and Europe and empowered Islamic State militants.

But both opposition and government representatives have since said talks have not in fact begun, and fighting on the ground has raged on without constraint.

De Mistura acknowledged on Tuesday that a collapse of the Geneva talks was always possible.

“If there is a failure this time after we tried twice at conferences in Geneva, for Syria there will be no more hope. We must absolutely try to ensure that there is no failure,” he told Swiss television RTS.

The opposition cancelled a meeting with him on Tuesday afternoon, accusing Russia of putting the process at risk with an “unprecedented” bombing campaign on Aleppo and Homs.

Rebels described the ongoing assault north of Aleppo as the most intense yet. One commander said opposition-held areas of the divided city were at risk of being encircled entirely by the government and allied militia, and appealed to foreign states that back the rebels to send more weapons.

“How can you accept to enter a negotiations when you have unprecedented military pressure? The Russians and regime want to push the opposition out of Geneva so the opposition bears the responsibility for the failure,” said a senior Western diplomat.

Despite calls from the U.S. and its allies for Moscow to stop the bombing during the peace process, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country had no intention of ending its campaign.

“Russian strikes will not cease until we really defeat terrorist organisations like Jabhat al-Nusra. And I don’t see why these air strikes should be stopped,” he said at a news conference in Oman’s capital Muscat.

Diplomats and opposition members said they were also taken by surprise when de Mistura called for immediate efforts to begin ceasefire negotiations despite there being no official talks or goodwill measures from the Syrian government.

The opposition has said it will not negotiate unless the government stops bombarding civilian areas, lifts blockades on besieged towns and releases detainees.

“The level of confidence between both sides is close to zero,” de Mistura told the BBC late on Tuesday.

“A ceasefire for me is essential. In fact it is the test that shows the talks are successful,” he said, urging Russia and the United States to work with other major powers to bring it about.

The opposition tentatively said it would resume meetings with de Mistura on Wednesday. Its chief coordinator Riad Hijab, who diplomats say is a unifying figure for the fragmented opposition, is expected to arrive in Geneva later in the day.

De Mistura called on Monday for the International Syria Support Group, which brings together major powers who back and oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to tackle the issue of ceasefires immediately. The group is scheduled to meet in Munich on Feb. 11.

Opposition delegate Nazir Hakim said a general ceasefire in the current climate was “unrealistic”.