Syria’s fragile peace talks might be delayed for at least a year if they are abandoned now, a senior Western diplomat warned on Wednesday, as the opposition called for more military support for rebels after declaring the end of the ceasefire.
Fighting in Syria has seriously intensified in the past weeks, leaving a six-week-old ceasefire in tatters. The truce was engineered by the United States and Russia to pave the way for the first peace talks attended by the warring factions since fighting began five years ago, killing more than 250,000 people, creating the world’s worst refugee crisis, allowing for the rise of the ISIS group and drawning in regional and major powers.
The United Nations expressed deep concern on Wednesday over the fate of Syrians who have fled fighting near the northern city of Aleppo.
More than 40,000 people in camps, residential areas and settlements have been displaced due to fighting in recent days, mostly pushed eastwards towards the strategically vital border town of Azaz, as well as the Bab al-Salam and Sijjou camps for internally-displaced, the United Nations said.
“Taking into account the previous influx of over 75,000 internally displaced people into the Azaz sub-district in January and February, humanitarian needs are expected to rise exponentially,” the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in an overnight update.
The Geneva talks, taking place under U.N. auspices in Geneva, also appear to have collapsed this week. The opposition says it has called a “pause” to negotiations, after repeated violations by Assad’s forces.
“If this ends now, it will be over for at least a year … The Russians will steamroll — taking advantage of a U.S. vacuum,” the Western diplomat said, referring to fears Washington will be preoccupied by November’s U.S. presidential election.
“There will be three million more refugees and thousands more dead,” said the diplomat, who declined to be identified while describing a scenario world powers still hope to avoid. “If we all leave Geneva, I don’t see the process continuing.”
Damascus negotiators say the presidency of Bashar al-Assad is non-negotiable while the opposition considers the removal of the president as a prerequisite and complains of no progress on an end to violence, humanitarian access and political detainees.
The already widely violated truce began fraying more quickly some two weeks ago near Aleppo, where the Syrian army accused rebel groups of taking part in assaults by jihadists who are excluded from the ceasefire. Rebels say they were defending themselves from attacks by the army and its Shi’ite militia allies.
Western diplomats said consultations were under way on Wednesday to see if a ministerial meeting of major powers in the next two weeks was needed to try to strengthen the ceasefire monitoring mechanism.
A total collapse of the Geneva talks would leave a diplomatic vacuum that could allow a further escalation of the war that is being fueled by rivalries of foreign powers.
GIRDING FOR MORE BATTLE
As fighting raged and air strikes on rebel-held areas intensified, the opposition urged foreign states to supply them with the means to defend themselves.
Air strikes killed around 40 people in a crowded market on Tuesday in what may have been the worst incident of its kind since the cessation of hostilities took effect in February.
France said the government was rushing “headlong” into violence and showing its refusal to negotiate a political solution. Syrian state TV cited a military source denying any air force raids on residential areas.
Anas Al Abde, president of the Turkey-based opposition Syrian National Coalition, said the Geneva talks were “futile” and there was no hope in discussing political transition.
Speaking at a televised news conference in Istanbul, he urged “qualitative support” for anti-government forces, and said the solution must be a “political-military” one.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has come closer than any mediator so far in bringing the warring sides to peace talks which began last month, after the implementation of the partial truce brokered by the Washington and Moscow.
But the sides have yet to narrow their differences on issues like the fate of Assad, and it will be difficult to lure the opposition back to the table if fighting resumes unchecked, with the government taking advantage of Russia’s firepower.
On Wednesday experts were meeting in Geneva but the opposition’s Riad Hijab, chief coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), had quit the talks with senior delegates while de Mistura had left for personal reasons. About half of the HNC delegation remained.
Rebel armed groups appear to be girding for more war. Fares al-Bayoush, a colonel who heads the Northern Division rebel group affiliated to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army told Reuters: “Our situation on the frontlines is acceptable, but we await the increase of the support, or as the states promised … so we can force it (the regime) to resort to the political solution.”
He said there would be no return to negotiations “soon”.
States opposed to Assad have been channeling military support to vetted rebel groups via both Turkey and Jordan, in a program that has included military training overseen by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.