Numerous reports of Russian bombings over the last few days indicate that the U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire in Syria is a sham.
Air raids believed to have been carried out by Russia as well as artillery bombardments have hit a rebel-held town east of Damascus. And there have been dozens of ceasefire violations by all sides according to reports from inside Syria.
While the intensity of the fighting has slacked off, all sides in the factionalized conflict appear to be honoring the ceasefire in the breach.
This is important because the actual peace talks that have been set up to bring the fighting to an end and bring about some kind of political solution are supposed to begin next week. The talks are to follow a carefully crafted roadmap that includes a “transitional authority” to be formed by the middle of this year that will write a constitution, and elections to be held in 2017.
The Russians are insisting that Assad remain in power until after the elections. But Saudi Arabia is now saying that once the transitional authority takes power, Assad has got to go.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave office as soon as a transitional authority is set up, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Saturday, insisting there is no way he can retain power.
Talks between the regime and Syrian opposition, due to resume next week in Geneva, aim to set up a political transition process to end the country’s five-year-old war. A UN-brokered international roadmap foresees a transitional authority by the middle of this year and elections by mid-2017.
“Assad has to leave at the beginning of the process,” the Saudi minister, whose country backs the Syrian opposition, told reporters in Paris. Referring to the sequence of events, he said: “There is a transitional body, power shifts from Assad to the transitional body, and then he goes.”
After that “the transitional body drafts a constitution, prepares for elections. Some are arguing that no, Bashar leaves at the elections in 18 months, that’s not how we think.
“For us it is very clear, he leaves at the beginning of the process, not at the end.”
Syria peace talks set for March 9 will begin the following day with participants due to arrive in Geneva over several days, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said earlier Saturday.
A first round of talks in early February was cut short amid intensifying Russian air strikes in Syria in support of Assad’s forces.
But a fragile ceasefire drawn up by Russia and the United States and backed by the UN Security Council that entered into force on February 27 is now in its second week, despite accusations of violations.
The Saudi minister said there was no possibility that Assad could remain in power.
“The Syrian people have spoken when they took up arms against Bashar al-Assad and their message is very very clear: he is not going to be their president… they have already decided with their feet, with their guns,” he said.
Russia’s obvious gambit is to keep Assad in power at almost all costs. One can imagine how free and fair an election overseen by the Assad regime would be, especially if he is allowed to run for president. Rebel groups are also adamant about seeing Assad leave — many of them are demanding he go before the talks on forming a transitional authority even begin.
The talks are supposed to get underway next week in Geneva, but it is almost certain that deadline will be missed. In fact, with all sides at odds over even broad issues, it seems difficult to imagine how the talks can get underway at all.