Opposition walks out of Syrian peace talks

Powerful new military alliance of 10 rebel factions launches attacks on regime forces in Assad heartland of Latakia.

UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, 18 April 2016.  EPA/SALVATORE DI NOLFI
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BEIRUT // Syria’s opposition on Monday walked out of peace talks in protest over increased violence and a growing humanitarian crisis.

UN Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura said the opposition was postponing “formal participation” in the peace talks. However, negotiators will remain in Geneva and may continue “to pursue technical discussions”, including on political transition in Syria, Mr de Mistura added.

The walk-out came as some of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups launched a new offensive against regime forces in Bashar Al Assad’s heartland.

Ten rebel factions declared they were launching the “Battle of the Response to Grievances” in retaliation for regime violations of a tenuous truce that has been in place countrywide since late February. Among the signatories to the statement were Jaish Al Islam and Ahrar Al Sham, two groups seen as the rebels’ strongest and most influential.

The opposition forces launched offensives in Latakia province in north-west Syria. Photographs and videos online showed fighters using tanks, anti-aircraft guns, mortars and rockets against regime forces in the rural Jabal Turkmen and Jabal Akrad areas in the mountains of Latakia.

The creation of the new rebel alliance and the resumption of hostilities is the most serious threat yet to the overall ceasefire. While a number of rebel factions – including members of the alliance – continued to be involved in bouts of fighting throughout the truce, levels of violence between rebel and regime forces has plummeted since February 27.

Russia and the United States - which designed the ceasefire - would work to strengthen the now failing truce Moscow said in a statement Monday.

The fresh fighting came as representatives of the Syrian opposition made true on their threats to walk out of the UN-sponsored peace talks if no progress was made.

Abdulhakim Bashar, a member of the opposition’s delegation in Geneva, warned on Sunday that a withdrawal was likely. “We might suspend the talks if things carry on this way, and then there will be no prospect for any political solution,” he said.

“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.”

Indirect peace talks between the High Negotiations Committee – the body representing the Syrian opposition – and the regime resumed last week.

But the two sides disagree on Mr Al Assad’s political future, with the opposition saying he cannot play any role in Syria’s future or in a transitional government.

There was cautious optimism in earlier rounds of peace talks this year due to a ceasefire that was still largely holding and a partial withdrawal of Russian military forces. But the latest round came after an increase in violence had frayed the truce and on the heels of parliamentary elections in government-held territory.

With the Geneva talks aimed at following a political road map that would involve new parliamentary and presidential elections under a transitional government, the opposition took the government’s insistence on holding elections last week as a sign that they were not serious about negotiating.

As doubts grew over the talks in Geneva on Sunday, the opposition’s chief negotiator and Jaish Al Islam leader Mohammed Alloush took to Twitter to call for renewed attacks on regime forces.

“Don’t trust the regime and don’t wait for their pity,” he wrote. “Strike them at their necks. Strike them everywhere.”

The formation of the new rebel coalition and the announcement of the new offensive once again highlighted the weighty influence the hardline Salafi Ahrar Al Sham and Jaish Al Islam groups have in shaping the fate of the opposition.

The groups are of huge military and political importance to the rebels, but they are also highly controversial.

Ahrar Al Sham is an ally of Syria’s Al Qaeda branch, Jabhat Al Nusra, which along with ISIL is excluded from the ceasefire and any political settlement.

Jaish Al Islam’s late founder Zahran Alloush called for cleansing Alawites and Shiites in Syria. The group also used caged Alawite prisoners – including civilians – as human shields last year.

For Ahrar Al Sham and Jaish Al Islam, the announcement that they are resuming hostilities is a formality: both factions continued fighting on a number of fronts throughout the truce, because the government did not stop its attacks. Throughout the negotiations, the groups remained pessimistic that diplomacy would end the five years of war.

In making the declaration official, launching an offensive, and doing so with a coalition of like-minded rebel units, these powerful groups seemed to be casting their vote to give up on talks for now. Given their gravity, it is a move that could see more rebel groups do the same.

jwood@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse