The Cable

Syrian Peace Talks End Amid Fresh Wave of Violence

A sharp escalation in violence in Syria, punctuated by an overnight airstrike on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Aleppo, has given way to a grim reality: The cease-fire between the government and rebel forces has collapsed and peace talks to resolve the five-year civil war are at a standstill.

ALEPPO, SYRIA - APRIL 28:  Civilians look for survivors under debris after Russian forces staged air-strike over Aleppo's opposition controlled Kellase region, Syria on April 28, 2016.  (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - APRIL 28: Civilians look for survivors under debris after Russian forces staged air-strike over Aleppo's opposition controlled Kellase region, Syria on April 28, 2016. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A sharp escalation in violence in Syria, punctuated by an overnight airstrike on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Aleppo, has given way to a grim reality: The cease-fire between the government and rebel forces has collapsed and peace talks to resolve the five-year civil war are at a standstill.

The top U.N. envoy to the conflict, Staffan de Mistura, acknowledged as much on Thursday as he urged the United States and Russia to revive the peace process in Geneva that formally ended on Wednesday.

“This round of talks [has] … been overshadowed, let’s be frank, by a substantial and indeed worrisome deterioration of the cessation of hostilities,” de Mistura told reporters in Switzerland. “In the last 48 hours, we have had an average of one Syrian killed every 25 minutes. One Syrian wounded every 13 minutes.”

The latest effort to end the war had gained traction after Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov forged a “cessation of hostilities” agreement on Feb. 27 that largely held throughout March. But as back-and-forth fighting between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel fighters steadily increased, the two sides ultimately left the negotiating table in favor of the battlefield.

In a briefing to the U.N. Security Council early Thursday, de Mistura said the warring parties are now “reverting to the language of a military solution or military option,” according to a transcript obtained by The Associated Press. “We must ensure that they do not see that as a solution or an option.”

In the past 24 hours, a series of airstrikes and mortar fire killed more than 60 people in Aleppo, according to reports on the ground. At least 14 people were killed in an attack on a hospital supported by MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, and the International Committee for the Red Cross. The death toll was expected to rise, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number killed at 27.

At least one airstrike directly hit the building, “reducing it to rubble,” according to an MSF statement Thursday.

“This devastating attack has destroyed a vital hospital in Aleppo, and the main referral center for pediatric care in the area,” said MSF’s head of mission for Syria, Muskilda Zancada. “Where is the outrage among those with the power and obligation to stop this carnage?”

Syrian officials have denied that the hospital was targeted by the regime, but Western and European diplomats have already begun pointing the finger at the Syrian government and Moscow, which often provides air support for the regime.

“Russia has set itself up as the protector of the Assad regime, so it has a duty to bring its full influence to bear,” said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in a statement. Kerry also issued a statement saying Russia has a responsibility to “press the regime” to “stop attacking civilians.” 

In the past week, 200 civilians have been killed, according to the ICRC. Almost half were in Aleppo, although shelling and a car bombing in Damascus also claimed lives.Syrian state media said 14 people were killed as some 1,300 rockets fell in regime-controlled residential parts of Aleppo. A statement by the Syrian Coalition opposition group called the attack a war crime.

With the cease-fire effectively over, the contested city of Aleppo has become one of the primary battlefields between the regime and opposition.

De Mistura urged the International Syria Support Group, or ISSG, to meet and get the Geneva peace talks back on track. The group is made up of 17 regional countries and world powers, as well as the United Nations, Arab League, European Union, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The U.N. envoy appealed directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama, saying both of their historical legacies will be “linked to the success” of the peace process. The negotiations “will be meaningful only if and when the cessation of hostilities is brought back to the level we saw in February and in March,” de Mistura said.

Although the latest round of talks ended in a return to fighting, de Mistura said the negotiations had been fruitful, especially in getting Assad’s regime to discuss a political transition in Syria, something it had previously refused to consider. “You remember when the word ‘transition,’ at least in certain area[s], was taboo? Not anymore. Everyone acknowledges that that is the agenda,” de Mistura said.

Even so, he conceded: “We cannot ignore the fact that, during these talks, we have been having incidents, one after the other.”

This post has been updated. 

Photo credit: Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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