The Cable

Syrian Rebels Commit to Peace Talks Despite Regime Offensive

The Syrian opposition will attend a new round of U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva even as a the regime of Bashar al-Assad wages a bloody offensive in the rebel city of Aleppo, Foreign Policy has learned.

Syrian rescue workers and residents help an injured woman following a reported air strike by government forces on the rebel-held neighbourhood of Haydariya in the northern city of Aleppo on April 10, 2016.
 / AFP / THAER MOHAMMED        (Photo credit should read THAER MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian rescue workers and residents help an injured woman following a reported air strike by government forces on the rebel-held neighbourhood of Haydariya in the northern city of Aleppo on April 10, 2016. / AFP / THAER MOHAMMED (Photo credit should read THAER MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images)

The Syrian opposition will attend a new round of U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva even as a the regime of Bashar al-Assad wages a bloody offensive in the rebel city of Aleppo, Foreign Policy has learned.

The rebels’ calculus, according to a top spokesman, is to demonstrate that the opposition is committed to the political process even if the Syrian government, aided by Russian airstrikes, is not.

“The Assad regime’s escalation of attacks against civilians is meant to drive the [opposition] to say ‘no’ to the Geneva talks,” Salem al-Muslat, spokesman for the opposition High Negotiations Committee, told FP. “The HNC is committed to the political process, and will be in Geneva this week.”

The decision to attend the talks comes as a deadly escalation of fighting near the ancient city of Aleppo threatens to unravel the “cessation of hostilities” brokered by the United States and Russia aimed at fostering this week’s peace talks in Geneva. Muslat said members of the Syrian opposition will arrive in Geneva on Tuesday. Representatives of the Assad regime are expected to arrive on Friday.

The fighting in Syria has been concentrated in a handful of towns along Aleppo’s main road to the south, but the warring parties disagree about who’s fighting who. Rebels say the Syrian army has stepped up its bombing campaign for the last ten days with the help of Russian warplanes. The regime has accused the rebels of joining forces with the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate which is not included in the ceasefire agreement. The Islamic State is also not part of the agreement.

On Monday, the State Department blamed the Assad regime and its allies for the “vast majority” of ceasefire violations and urged the army to be more careful not to attack legitimate Syrian rebels while fighting Nusra and ISIS, also known as Daesh.

“Everybody needs to focus on Nusra and Daesh, but we can’t have overlap and we can’t have violations against those groups who have bought into the cease-fire or the cessation,” Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, told reporters.

According to local reports on Tuesday, the Assad regime has begun an offensive to recapture a strategic hilltop village south of Aleppo held by Nusra. The move comes a day before the government plans to hold parliamentary elections designed to usher in an assembly of Assad loyalists. The upcoming vote, which will only be held in regime-controlled areas, has been dismissed by the rebels and Western powers as fraudulent.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch issued a new report accusing rebels and the regime of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and called for stronger measures to monitor and enforce the ceasefire. The five-year conflict has killed at least 250,000 people and led to the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

The U.S. and Russia, co-chairs of the Syria Ceasefire Task Force, established a monitoring system with a hotline for ordinary Syrians to text, phone or email violations of the ceasefire. But the HRW report said the task force needs to “publicly report on violations” and “adopt measures to sanction and deter such violations” so they don’t continue.

According to the humanitarian group, recent attacks include a March 31 government airstrike on the town of Deir al-Assafir that killed at least 31 civilians. “Three witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there were no military targets nearby,” the report said. Another alleged violation occurred on April 5, when unidentified armed groups fired rockets and mortars into an Aleppo neighborhood held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. The group charges that 18 civilians were killed in the “likely indiscriminate attacks.”

“A decrease in casualty numbers brought a much needed respite for Syrians, but many civilians are still dying in unlawful attacks,” said Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East director. “Key countries pushing for negotiations in Syria – notably the U.S. and Russia – need to press the warring parties in Syria to end unlawful attacks.”

The violence has dimmed expectations for the peace talks scheduled to begin on April 13. The U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has said the talks will focus on a political transition, governance and the constitution. But some reports indicate that the Syrian government, bolstered by a series of battlefield victories, intends to advance a political solution that keeps Assad in power, a move that would defy a plan supported by Russia and constitute a non-starter for the Syrian rebels.

Muslat charged that the regime’s offensive shows that Assad “does not want a political solution, and insists on a military one even if the cost is the destruction of Syria.”

“The U.N. and international community must not allow the regime’s dirty tactics to derail the Geneva talks,” he added. “There is absolutely no decision to break down the truce from the opposition side.”

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