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Syrian Opposition Suspends Peace Talks Amid Anti-Assad Offensive

In a major blow for U.N.-backed peace efforts, the Syrian opposition suspended its participation in talks in Geneva as rebels launched a new offensive against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in retaliation for government airstrikes.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura addresses journalists after a meeting on Syria peace talks in Geneva on April 18, 2016.

Syria's opposition urged the UN to pause peace talks until Damascus shows it is serious about political transition, as rebel groups vowed to strike back against alleged ceasefire violations. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura addresses journalists after a meeting on Syria peace talks in Geneva on April 18, 2016. Syria's opposition urged the UN to pause peace talks until Damascus shows it is serious about political transition, as rebel groups vowed to strike back against alleged ceasefire violations. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura addresses journalists after a meeting on Syria peace talks in Geneva on April 18, 2016. Syria's opposition urged the UN to pause peace talks until Damascus shows it is serious about political transition, as rebel groups vowed to strike back against alleged ceasefire violations. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

In a major blow for United Nations-backed peace efforts, the Syrian opposition suspended its participation in talks in Geneva as rebels launched a new offensive against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in retaliation for government airstrikes.

In statements on Monday, the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said talks could not proceed while the Assad regime and its partners continued bombing civilians, hitting rebel targets and refusing to discuss the formation of a transitional government in Damascus. The pause gives a “chance … to respond to the core subject of forming a governing body that has no role for Assad,” the HNC statement said.

According to local reports, rebels launched a concerted attack against pro-government forces in Latakia province Monday and advanced farther east into Hama. At the same time, the Assad regime continued to pummel Homs province with airstrikes.

In a major blow for United Nations-backed peace efforts, the Syrian opposition suspended its participation in talks in Geneva as rebels launched a new offensive against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in retaliation for government airstrikes.

In statements on Monday, the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said talks could not proceed while the Assad regime and its partners continued bombing civilians, hitting rebel targets and refusing to discuss the formation of a transitional government in Damascus. The pause gives a “chance … to respond to the core subject of forming a governing body that has no role for Assad,” the HNC statement said.

According to local reports, rebels launched a concerted attack against pro-government forces in Latakia province Monday and advanced farther east into Hama. At the same time, the Assad regime continued to pummel Homs province with airstrikes.

The renewal of fighting is a setback for U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and the United States, which backs his diplomatic efforts to end the five-year war that has killed more than 250,000 people and prompted the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

De Mistura acknowledged the opposition’s “intention to postpone their formal participation” and said it was due to their “displeasure and concern about the degradation of the humanitarian situation and the problems related to the cessation of hostilities.”

In recent weeks, both sides have accused each other of violating the Feb. 27 cessation of hostilities agreement designed to smooth negotiations toward establishing a transitional government in Syria and, in turn, hold elections. The truce did not include the Islamic State or the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, and coalition strikes against both groups have continued.

A person close to the HNC maintained the opposition was merely calling for a pause in the talks and was not walking away from the negotiating table. “They’re staying in Geneva,” the individual told Foreign Policy. But renewed fighting by Assad’s regime in Aleppo and the rebels in northwest Syria have, in effect, unraveled the cease-fire agreement.

De Mistura has urged the U.S. and Russia, the two main supporters of the warring parties and the co-sponsors of the peace process, to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.  

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the deteriorating situation in Syria during a phone call, according to a statement the Kremlin released Monday. “Mr. Putin stressed the need for the moderate opposition to distance themselves swiftly from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and to close Syria’s border with Turkey, from where fighters and arms supplies for the extremists make their way in,” according to a readout of the discussion provided by the Russian Embassy in Washington.

A State Department official told FP that it’s “not insignificant” that the opposition agreed to stay in Geneva while suspending their formal participation in the talks. But he also distanced the United States from the negotiations, which are on life support. “We are not a party to these discussions,” the official said. “This is between the U.N., the regime, and the opposition.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

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