- By John HudsonJohn 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.
A spokesman for Syria’s leading opposition group said his organization is likely to attend U.N.-brokered peace talks on Monday after walking away from earlier negotiations, building momentum behind the most promising, albeit distant, diplomatic push in years to end the civil war.
“Talks will start on Monday in Geneva,” High Negotiations Committee spokesman Salim al-Muslat told Foreign Policy on Wednesday. “It will be indirect talks with two separate rooms. We have no problem with that.”
Muslat said he could not officially confirm the HNC’s attendance until it completes an internal assessment on the cease-fire that took effect on Feb. 27. But he expressed optimism that discussions were moving in the right direction.
“We are optimistic, but we’re still waiting for a decision from all the members of HNC. We’re not against attending negotiations,” he added.
The long-stalled resumption of peace talks has been expected since the U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire that has sharply reduced the country’s violence. Though limited in scope — it does not preclude strikes against the Islamic State or the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front — the truce has largely held despite sporadic violence in different parts of the country, including most recently in Idlib. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group, said 80 civilians died in cease-fire zones since the agreement took effect.
In a Wednesday news conference, the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, cautiously welcomed the “sustained reduction of violence.”
“Incidents are taking place, no question. … I’m expecting even worse incidents to take place, probably caused by spoilers,” he said.
Still, de Mistura said he expects “substantive, deeper” talks between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and opposition leaders to start Monday, continuing 10 days before a seven-day break. The agenda includes the formation of a transitional government, a new constitution, and holding fresh elections.
“At the end of the day, a cease-fire and cessation of hostilities are not the solution,” he said. “The solution is a political transition.”
Rebel leaders have raised doubts over the last 24 hours about attending. On Wednesday, the HNC’s general coordinator, Riad Hijab, accused pro-Assad forces of carrying out an airstrike on an Idlib market that “massacred” tens of people and jeopardized the political process. Assad’s regime, meanwhile, has said it may not join the talks on the first day, suggesting that the start date could slide beyond the 14th.
Muslat said the cease-fire was unquestionably a “good thing” despite his view that “many violations” were caused by Assad’s regime and Moscow. He said 21 trucks delivered supplies Tuesday to distressed Syrians in eastern Ghouta, including five carrying medical supplies, and described it as “a very positive step.”
Still, he accused the regime of preventing humanitarian access to the Damascus suburb of Darayya. “People need food and medication,” Muslat said. “The regime is insisting not to let anything through.”
Jan Egeland, a Norwegian aid official who is coordinating the U.N. relief effort, confirmed that the Syrian government continues to besiege six of seven areas where aid has been completely cut off. The Islamic State is laying siege to the seventh, Deir ez-Zour. In recent weeks, the U.N. has reached desperate civilians in 10 other besieged areas, including towns that had previously been isolated by opposition fighters.
Despite the constraints, de Mistura said the U.N. has made “quite [an] achievement” on the humanitarian front. He said an estimated 536 trucks have carried aid to besieged areas, providing assistance to at least 238,485 people. That compares, he said, with “last year, zero.”
Last month, the first round of U.N.-brokered political talks was suspended before it got off the ground as Assad’s forces, supported by Russian air strikes, carried out a major offensive to seize rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo. The collapse of the talks was a significant setback for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has spent countless hours with various sides of the conflict and brokered the cease-fire with the help of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
During congressional testimony Wednesday, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, acknowledged the maddening complexity of the Syria crisis, which he suggested would last for decades.
“We are dealing with a civil war where Syria, backed by powerful expansionist and maligned actors in the form of Iran and Russia, barrel-bombs its own citizens, creating a humanitarian disaster and fueling large-scale migration across the region and into Europe,” Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The area is rife with long-standing sectarian issues that breed mistrust and disenfranchisement.”
He called such problems “generational issues.”
FP’s U.N. correspondent Colum Lynch contributed to this report.