The US has marked the anniversary of Syria's decade-long war by slamming President Bashar Al Assad's government for refusing to engage seriously in peace talks and for planning phoney elections later this year.
Washington's UN envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield rejected the presidential vote being staged in regime-held areas this summer, saying it was not part of UN-supervised efforts to unite and rebuild a fragmented country.
She spoke at a UN Security Council meeting on Syria characterised by stark differences between the US, Russia and others on the conflict, and after thousands of Syrians on Monday staged an anti-Al Assad protest in Idlib, the country’s last rebel-held bastion.
“I would ask the international community to not be fooled by the coming Syrian presidential elections,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield told the 15-nation council.
“These elections will neither be free nor fair. They will not legitimise the Assad regime.”
At the same meeting, UN peace envoy Geir Pedersen lamented how the Syrian government's crackdown on pro-democracy uprisings in March 2011 quickly spiralled into a multi-front civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced millions from their homes.
“The Syrian tragedy will go down as one of the darkest chapters in recent history,” said Mr Pedersen.
“The Syrian people are among the greatest victims of this century.”
He described limited progress on the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which comprises representatives of Mr Al Assad’s government, opposition and civil society, and has the mandate to draw up a new constitution leading to UN-supervised elections.
Mr Pedersen said he was negotiating between the government and opposition leaders in a bid to launch the sixth round of constitutional talks. The fifth session ended in January with Damascus rejecting proposals.
Speaking with reporters after UN council talks, the envoy described an opening for new, invigorated peace negotiations after a year of “relative calm” in north-western Syria, where a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey has reduced levels of violence.
Mr Pedersen said he had met with government, opposition and foreign figures to find ways of “consolidating this calm” and rolling it out in other parts of the fragmented country as a “true nationwide ceasefire”.
“There is a way forward, but we need to find a way around what I call the ‘you-first syndrome’ that has dominated much of the diplomacy around Syria for the last decade,” said the Norwegian diplomat.
“All players, including the Syrian government and opposition, and key international players will need to be ready to identify not only what they realistically hope to achieve, but what they can put on the table.”
Few analysts expect the committee to make real progress. Fighting has largely ceased and forces backing Mr Al Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, recaptured most of the country and the president has few reasons to seriously negotiate with opponents.
Ms Thomas-Greenfield said Damascus has “not taken a single step” to pursue a peace deal with the opposition and urged Russia, Syria’s main ally on the UN council, to press Damascus to “quit stalling”.