Citing the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the umbrella opposition-group negotiators known as the High Negotiating Council (HNC) are threatening to leave Geneva where peace talks have yet to get off the ground unless Russian and Syrian troops besieging several rebel held towns lift their blockades and the bombing of rebel positions ceases.
The indirect peace talks began here Friday with a meeting between the United Nations envoy and the Syrian government delegation. The main opposition group, the Higher Negotiations Committee or HNC, boycotted that session saying it won’t take part until a set of preliminary demands are met: releasing detainees, ending the bombardment of civilians by Russian and Syrian forces, and lifting government blockades on rebel-held areas.
The HNC later agreed to send a delegation to meet with U.N. officials, while still insisting it would not negotiate until their demands are met. The HNC decision to come to Geneva gave a glimmer of hope that peace efforts in Syria might actually get off the ground for the first time since two earlier rounds of negotiations collapsed in 2014.
“We are here to discuss humanitarian matters first and if this happens we will start the negotiations,” the opposition’s delegation chief spokesman Salem al-Mislet told reporters upon the arrival of some two dozen members at their hotel in Geneva. “If not, there will be no negotiations and there will be no reason for us to stay here.”
He added that the HNC team will discuss these issues with U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura during a meeting scheduled for Sunday.
“We are keen to make this negotiation a success but you should ask the other side. The other side is pretending to present the Syrian people. In fact he is killing the Syrian people. We’re here to save the remaining children of Syria,” al-Mislet said in English.
Another senior delegation member, Riad Naasan Agha, said their team includes several rebel groups including the Army of Islam that controls large areas near the capital Damascus. Asked if the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group is part of the team, he said “they did not withdraw (from the HNC) but they are not with us” in Geneva.
It’s hard to see the point of any negotiations. Some of the opposition groups in the umbrella organization are fighting between themselves as much as they are fighting President Assad. And the Kurds — the most effective and organized fighting force among the rebels — haven’t even been invited to the peace talks.
The Russians are insisting that President Assad remain in power through any transitional period while the HNC says he’s got to go. The U.S., with limited influence, can’t seem to make up their mind on that point, with Secretary of State Kerry saying it’s something to be negotiated.
Russia won’t stop bombing and Assad will not lift the blockade of rebel held towns for the simple reason that they are winning. Assad doesn’t care about the tens of thousands of starving Syrians because it plays to his advantage. Russia doesn’t care about killing civilians as they bomb rebel strongholds, killing hundreds.
In short, these “peace talks” are a mirage — a PR stunt that allows Russia and President Assad the appearance of trying to end the conflict with the onus of any breakdown in negotiations falling on the rebels. Meanwhile, the war goes on, people are dying, and the catastrophe that Syria has become shows no signs of ending.