By AFP – Jan 30,2016 – JORDAN TIMES –
Abu Mahmoud, a 52-year-old rebel fighter, speaks with a fellow fighter next to gas masks inside a tunnel, used as a base, in the rebel-controlled area of Arbeen, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on Friday (AFP photo)
GENEVA — Representatives of Syria’s main opposition body arrived in Switzerland Saturday for UN-organised peace talks as the starvation death toll rose in Madaya, one of a string of besieged towns in the war-ravaged country.
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) begrudgingly bowed only late Friday to US and Saudi pressure to at least show up in Geneva to test the waters for joining the biggest push yet to end a five-year-old civil war.
But the body insists it will not engage in formal negotiations, even indirectly, with President Bashar Assad’s regime until UN Security Council resolutions requiring an end to sieges of towns are adhered to.
“We will not sit down at the negotiating table if our people continue to be massacred,” HNC spokesman Salem Al Meslet said Friday. It is also pressing for bombardments of civilians to cease.
Highlighting the dire situation, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Saturday said 16 more people had starved to death in Madaya, with several dozen more residents in “danger of death” because of severe malnutrition.
Madaya is one of four towns included in a rare deal last year intended to halt fighting and allow in humanitarian aid, but access remains limited both there and in the rebel-besieged towns of Fuaa and Kafraya.
On Friday, the scheduled start of a planned six months of talks under an ambitious roadmap set out in Vienna in November, protesters highlighted the plight of ordinary Syrians with “siege soup” of grass and leaves.
More than 4.5 million people with immense humanitarian needs are living in areas extremely hard to access because of fighting, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Saturday.
A source close to the HNC said that the group was sending 17 negotiators and 25 others to the Swiss city. A 16-member delegation representing Assad’s government arrived on Friday.
Backed by external powers embroiled in Syria’s war, the talks are seeking to end a conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people and fuelled the meteoric rise of the Daesh terror group.
Millions of those fleeing the conflict have sought refuge in neighbouring countries and hundreds of thousands have risked their lives to reach Europe.
On Saturday, dozens of migrant men, women and children, including Syrians, drowned when their boat sank off of Turkey — joining the almost 4,000 who died trying to reach Europe by sea in 2015.
The influx has also created tensions in Europe. Dozens of masked men believed to belong to neo-Nazi gangs carried out a number of assaults on migrants in Stockholm overnight, police said on Saturday.
The complexities of the Syrian conflict, involving a tangled web of moderate rebels, Islamist fighters, Kurds, extremists and regime forces backed by Moscow and Iran, pose a huge challenge to the talks, experts say.
“There is every reason to be pessimistic, and there is no realistic scenario in which a breakthrough would be reached,” said Karim Bitar, analyst at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
The future of Assad, emboldened by recent territorial gains against rebels thanks to Russian support, in any peace deal remains uncertain.
Daesh attacks in Paris and elsewhere are leading some Western countries to moderate their demands for his swift departure, with some starting to see him as the lesser evil, experts say.
For now, no face-to-face talks between the opposition and the regime are expected. Instead “proximity talks” are envisioned whereby UN envoy Staffan de Mistura will shuttle between participants.
The UN envoy was to meet with HNC delegates “perhaps tomorrow [Sunday]”, HNC spokesman Makhous said.
In a controversial move, the alliance has named Mohammed Alloush, member of the Army of Islam rebel group, as its chief negotiator, but sources hinted he was not among those travelling to Geneva.
Excluded meanwhile, in the initial stages of the talks at least, are Kurdish representatives, with Saudi Arabia and in particular Turkey vehemently opposed to their participation.
Kurdish figures — including Saleh Muslim, head of the powerful Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party — hoping to be included have left Geneva after not receiving invitations, sources told AFP on Saturday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet his US counterpart John Kerry on February 11 to review progress in the talks, Lavrov’s office said on Saturday meanwhile.
Turkey on Saturday accused Russia of a new violation of its airspace, just over two months after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border on November 24.