Syria opposition threatens to quit talks as fighting flares
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The Syrian opposition delegation threatened to quit the Geneva peace talks, due to resume Monday, as a renewed flare-up in violence in Aleppo killed another 22 civilians, while rebel groups vowed to respond to government truce violations with force.
The opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said indirect negotiations could collapse if Syria’s regime refuses to compromise on political and humanitarian issues.
“We might suspend [our participation in] the talks if things carry on this way, and then there will be no prospect for any political solution,” HNC member Abdulhakim Bashar told AFP.
A fragile ceasefire – which does not include the Islamic State group, al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate and other jihadist groups – has seen violence drop across parts of Syria.
But renewed clashes around Aleppo are straining the truce as other rebel groups are being dragged into the fighting.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the number of civilians killed in Aleppo city was one of the highest single tolls since the truce began on February 27.
At least six civilians were killed and eight wounded in regime air strikes on rebel-held eastern parts of the city on Saturday.
And a barrage of rockets and sniper fire by opposition groups onto government-controlled western districts killed 16 civilians, including 10 children and two women.
Rebel groups fired more rockets at western areas of Aleppo city late Sunday, but there was no immediate information on new casualties.
On Monday, a collection of Syrian rebel groups announced a new “battle” against government forces in response to alleged ceasefire violations.
The groups, including factions fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, said in a statement sent to Reuters that they would respond “with force” against any army units that fired on civilians.
Ceasefire ‘near collapse’
The HNC has questioned the regime’s commitment to a political solution to Syria’s five-year war, particularly in the wake of the renewed violence in Aleppo.
“The humanitarian situation is continually deteriorating, the issue of the detainees has not seen any progress, the ceasefire has almost collapsed and now there is an attack on Aleppo from three sides,” Bashar said in Switzerland.
“Given these factors, we are reviewing everything, and we will continue our meetings today (Sunday), so that tomorrow we can decide what to do.”
A second member of the HNC delegation, speaking anonymously, said the talks were nearly at “an impasse”.
The fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has remained the main sticking point in peace talks, with Syria’s opposition clinging onto its call for his ouster since the conflict began in 2011.
But the regime has ruled out his departure, calling it “a red line”.
“There can be no compromise on the issue of Bashar al-Assad... For us, it’s a closed book – you cannot trade an entire people for one man,” opposition chief negotiator Mohammed Alloush told AFP in Geneva.
UN mediator Staffan de Mistura is expected to sit down with the Damascus government Monday morning and meet the opposition delegation in the afternoon.
‘Strike them everywhere’
Earlier, Alloush called for renewed attacks on regime forces, despite the shaky truce.
“Don’t trust the regime and don’t wait for their pity,” tweeted Alloush, a leading political figure in the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel group.
“Strike them at their necks (kill them). Strike them everywhere.”
A fellow opposition figure said Alloush’s hawkish statement did not represent the HNC’s position.
Alloush himself later told AFP that he had been calling on rebel groups to defend themselves against regime truce violations.
The peace plan outlined by De Mistura and backed by world powers envisions a political transition, a new constitution, and presidential and parliamentary elections by September 2017.
But Syria’s government hosted its own parliamentary elections last week only in government-held areas, which Assad’s ruling Baath party easily won.
The opposition denounced the election as a “farce”.
Brokered by Russia and the United States, the ceasefire has largely held across parts of Syria, despite frequent accusations of violations by both sides.
The IS group has seized fresh territory from rebel groups in the north, threatening the key opposition town of Azaz, just eight kilometres south of the Turkish border.
The jihadist onslaught has forced 30,000 Syrians to flee, and tens of thousands more are at risk of displacement.
Since the conflict erupted in 2011, half of Syria’s population has been displaced – including five million who have fled to neighbouring states.
More than 270,000 people have been killed.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)