x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Syria peace talks resume in Geneva — without regime present

The government’s delegation left the talks on Saturday, without clarifying if or when they would return

Syrian opposition spokesman Yahya Aridi, pictured here arriving for UN-brokered talks in Geneva on December 1, 2017, said the regime's departure from the talks was an embarrassment to Assad ally Russia. Denis Balibouse / Reuters
Syrian opposition spokesman Yahya Aridi, pictured here arriving for UN-brokered talks in Geneva on December 1, 2017, said the regime's departure from the talks was an embarrassment to Assad ally Russia. Denis Balibouse / Reuters

UN-brokered peace talks aimed at resolving the Syrian war resumed in Geneva on Tuesday — but without regime representatives in attendance.

The Syrian government delegation left the talks in Geneva on Saturday, without clarifying if or when they would return. Representatives cited the opposition's demand that Mr Al Assad should play no role in an interim government as the reason for their exit.

The resumption of talks on Tuesday came just hours after Syrian state media claimed its government’s air defences had shot down three missiles fired by Israeli warplanes, while other reports suggested that at least some of the missiles had successfully struck targets on the eastern outskirts of Damascus.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors Syria’s six-year-old war, said the likely target was the Jamraya military research facility, which has been targeted in the past by Israel.

The Syrian government also blamed Israel for attacks inside the country early on Sunday, and said its air defence systems were also fired successfully during that attack. Moscow, which has lent substantial military support to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's government, began deploying advanced air defence systems in the country more than two years ago.

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Israel rarely takes public credit for such strikes though it is believed to have carried out about 20 of them since 2013. In the past it has admitted to attacking arms shipments in Syria allegedly bound for Hizbollah, which is fighting alongside Mr Al Assad’s forces.

Russia’s backing for the Syrian government and Israel’s strikes underscore the nature of a conflict that has long been not just a civil war, but a fight involving international actors.

At the international level, there have also been peace talks, though they have accomplished little.

Those currently taking place in Geneva are seen as a chance for the United Nations to end the six-year war — which has killed more than 340,000 people and left Syria in ruins — and mark the first time that Syrian opposition groups have sent a unified delegation to represent them.

But with representatives of Mr Al Assad's government absent on Tuesday, the unified opposition delegation met with UN officials, including chief mediator Staffan de Mistura, alone.

The opposition called on the United Nations and allies of Mr Al Assad to halt a bombing campaign that has escalated in recent weeks against Eastern Ghouta, a besieged rebel-held suburb of eastern Damascus.

Before meeting with UN officials, Yahya Aridi, the opposition delegation’s spokesperson, said children in Eastern Ghouta were dying and had no access to medical care amid an intense bombing campaign that began last month.

“Every day that passes without progress for achieving peace for Syria and its people is a day that means more blood, destruction, sieges, and children dying,” he said.

“We are serious about bringing peace to our people because they deserve peace. We call on the [UN] Security Council, on those who are helping the regime, to stop this tragedy."

On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory reported that government planes had killed at least 27 people in Eastern Ghouta, the highest toll in a single day since fighting there escalated three weeks ago. The rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus have endured a years-long siege that has intensified in recent months, creating food shortages and deaths related to malnutrition. The blockade has also prompted rebel efforts to break it that have only increased the violence.

“The nightmare in Eastern Ghouta shows the urgent necessity for a political solution to relieve the suffering of our people,” the opposition delegation's head, Nasr Al Hariri, said after meeting with UN officials on Tuesday.

“While we are here [in Geneva] for negotiations, the regime are conducting atrocities and massacres."

Eastern Ghouta is the collective name for a number of suburban Damascus neighbourhoods where nearly 400,000 people have endured a years-long siege. Shipments of international aid are often prevented from entering the area for weeks or months at a time, and even the aid that does enter the area is insufficient.

“This is normal during the peace talks — the regime escalates,” said Humam Husari, a filmmaker living in the Zamalka neighbourhood of Eastern Ghouta. “In the past two months, Eastern Ghouta has been through the most difficult time since the war started.”

Mr Husari said government planes had also dropped cluster bombs on the area in the last three weeks, maiming dozens of people, including children.

But he said this wasn’t as bad as the shortages of food brought on by the blockade.

“Starvation is worse than being afraid of bombs,” Mr Husari. “When you don’t know how to feed your children, you will consider doing anything.”

While it is becoming conventional wisdom that Mr Al Assad’s government has taken the upper hand in Syria’s war, violence remains widespread. On Tuesday, Syrian state media reported an explosion on a bus in the government-held city of Homs that killed at least eight people.

ISIL claimed responsibility for that attack. The group has been driven out of its last urban strongholds in eastern Syria in recent months, but maintains cells throughout the country, as well as a presence in the Yarmouk neighbourhood of Damascus.

Other groups, including Al Qaeda-linked rebel faction Tahrir Al Sham, have carried out similar bombings in government-controlled areas.

The fate of Mr Al Assad has remained a sticking point during years of attempts by the UN to get the government and opposition to agree on a road map for Syria's future.

And the latest round of talks, which began on Tuesday last week, have so far brought no concrete progress.

The regime's chief negotiator, Bashar Al Jaafari, declared on Friday that "this round of talks is finished for us", saying his team would fly back home and that "Damascus will decide" whether it would return to the UN-backed talks.

He referred to a statement released by the opposition last month that said Mr Al Assad should step down before any peace deal can be reached.

"The language was provocative, irresponsible politically speaking," he said, warning that if the opposition delegation sticks to such language "there will be no progress".

In response, the opposition delegation’s spokesperson, Yahya Aridi, said, “I don’t think that those who support the regime are happy with such a position being taken by the regime. This is an embarrassment to Russia”.

“We understand the Russian position now. They are … in a hurry to find a solution,” he added.

Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute said the regime's "intransigence" showed that Russia had insufficient leverage with the Syrian government.

“Moscow is in a rush to ‘solve’ Syria, but Bashar Al Assad is not," he added.

* Additional reporting by Reuters