Legislative vote gets under way as Syria peace talks to resume
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A second round of peace talks to end Syria’s five-year civil war are due to resume in Geneva on Wednesday as Syrians in regime-controlled areas of the country begin voting in legislative elections.
The United Nations-brokered talks are aimed at forming a transitional government followed by general elections to end a conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced half of the country’s population.
The fate of President Bashar al-Assad remains a stumbling block, and UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has held meetings with Assad’s key allies Tehran and Moscow ahead of a sit-down with the main opposition High Negotiations Committee Wednesday and regime representatives later in the week.
Syrians in government-controlled areas headed to polling stations Wednesday to elect a new 250-member parliament that is expected to serve as a rubber stamp for Assad.
Shortly after the stations opened at 7am local time people began turning up. Around 3,500 government-approved candidates are competing after more than 7,000 others dropped out.
The UN does not recognise the vote, which Assad’s opposition has said is illegitimate. Britain and France have also dismissed the poll, describing it as a “flimsy facade” and a “sham”.
Parliament elections in Syria are held every four years, and Damascus says the vote is constitutional and separate from the peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the war.
But the opposition says it contributes to an unfavourable climate for negotiations amid fierce fighting that threatens an increasingly tenuous ceasefire engineered by the United States and Russia.
A surge in violence in the last few days has threatened a landmark ceasefire agreed in February which had largely held and piled more pressure on these talks, which follow two previous fruitless attempts to negotiate an end to the bloodshed.
“Right now, there are signs that this (the ceasefire) is slipping and it is a much more delicate environment for de Mistura to convene political talks,” US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told reporters in New York after a briefing by de Mistura on Tuesday.
Power said Russia must put pressure on its Syrian ally to “get the regime back with the programme”, adding she was “very alarmed” by Syria’s plans to launch a Russian-backed counter-offensive in Aleppo, the epicentre of the renewed fighting.
'Interfere with the political process'
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian also voiced concerns about the increase in fighting following de Mistura’s trip to Tehran, saying it was “disturbing and may interfere with the political process”.
The partial truce brokered by Moscow and Washington, which came into effect on February 27, had raised hopes for a resolution to the conflict, until the recent escalation in fighting in northern Aleppo province, in parts of Hama province and Damascus.
Pro-government forces were on Tuesday pressing an advance against the town of Al-Eis, held by al Qaeda’s local affiliate, al-Nusra Front, and allied rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Al-Nusra and the rebels fought back, killing at least 23 regime loyalists, including Iranian and Afghan militia fighters, the Observatory said.
Jihadists like those from al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS) group are excluded from the ceasefire. But in some areas, al-Nusra is allied with rebel forces meant to be covered by the truce.
Intra-jihadist fighting also raged in southern Damascus, where the IS group on Tuesday took control of most of a Palestinian refugee camp, seizing territory held by al-Nusra, according to a Palestinian official.
Regime warplanes have carried out “unprecedented” air strikes on the rebel-held eastern parts of Aleppo city, according to the Observatory.
Offensive in Aleppo
Abu Mohammad fled his home in Aleppo during the peak of the Syrian air force’s bombing campaign but came back when the situation improved. He now fears his return may be short-lived.
“I am preparing myself to leave the city should the bombing continue,” said the 38-year-old father of four.
Washington on Monday expressed worries that an assault against al-Nusra in Aleppo may spread to moderate rebel factions, which could cause the truce to collapse and derail the peace efforts.
“We are concerned about plans to attack and seize ... Aleppo when there are clearly opposition groups there that are part of the cessation of hostilities,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
The truce has allowed increased humanitarian aid deliveries and a significant drop in civilian deaths.
“The ceasefire has been so important over the last weeks because it has given people a lot more than simply access to markets, access to assistance. It has given them hope,” according to the World Food Programme’s deputy regional head, Matthew Hollingworth.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)