UN suspends Syrian peace talks as regime rolls back rebels

“I have indicated from the first day I won’t talk for the sake of talking,” UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said in Geneva after failing for several days to get negotiations off the ground.

Riad Hijab, Syrian opposition coordinator for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), attends a news conference after the Geneva peace talks were suspended by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on February 3, 2016. Pierre Albouy/Reuters
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GENEVA // Talks aimed at securing peace in Syria were suspended on Wednesday as president Bashar Al Assad’s regime secured a major battlefield victory against rebels and his ally Russia vowed no-let up in air strikes.

“I have indicated from the first day I won’t talk for the sake of talking,” UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said in Geneva after failing for several days to get peace negotiations off the ground.

“I therefore have taken the decision to bring a temporary pause [until February 25]. It is not the end or the failure of the talks.”

The announcement came as Syrian troops, helped by days of Russian air strikes, cut the last supply route linking rebels in Aleppo to the Turkish border, in a major blow to the opposition.

Aleppo, Syria’s pre-war commercial capital, has been divided between loyalists in the west and rebels in the east since fighting erupted in the northern city in mid-2012.

Mr Al Assad’s forces backed by Hizbollah and other militias encircled Aleppo from the west, south and east, and have advanced from the north since last week.

Opposition forces are now threatened in parts of Aleppo that they have held for three years.

On Wednesday, the army broke a three-year rebel siege of two government-held villages and took control of parts of the supply route, a Syrian military source said.

“The regime forces have done in three days in Aleppo what they had failed to do in three years, thanks mainly to Russian support,” said Rami Abdul Rahman, director of of Britain-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The offensive is one of several the government has launched since president Vladimir Putin threw Russia’s military might behind Mr Al Assad on September 30, adding to support from Iran.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that he saw no reason for the air strikes to stop.

“Russian air strikes will not cease until we truly defeat the terrorist organisations ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra,” Russian agencies quoted him as saying in Oman.

The regime’s new success on the ground helped undermine Mr de Mistura’s efforts in recent days to coax the warring sides into six months of indirect peace talks, set out in a November roadmap proposed by outside powers.

But problems had beset the Geneva gathering from the outset.

The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) delegation, which represents the main opposition grouping, arrived several days late, and reluctantly, insisting on immediate steps to alleviate the dire humanitarian situation.

This included aid getting through to besieged cities, a halt to the bombardment of civilians and the release of thousands prisoners, including some children, languishing in the Assad regime’s infamous jails.

The HNC was also outraged that as peace talks were due to start in Geneva, a major offensive was happening on the ground.

The government delegation meanwhile complained that the HNC was disorganised, had not named its negotiators and contained individuals it considered “terrorists”.

One such figure is Mohammed Alloush, a leading member of hardline rebel group Jaish Al Islam and nominally the HNC's chief negotiator, who arrived in Geneva late on Monday.

“The problem is with the criminal regime that decimates children and with Russia which always tries to stand alongside criminals,” he said, clutching a photo of a young boy he said was hurt by Russian air strikes.

The next step is for the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of outside countries to convene, potentially on February 11 in Munich, Germany.

* Agence France-Presse