Russia open to ‘terrorists’ attending Syria peace talks
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Russia open to ‘terrorists’ attending Syria peace talks

Moscow says hard-line Islamic groups should take part in UN negotiations though they are not ‘legitimate peace partners’

Syrian chief negotiator and the country's Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja'afari speaks to the media after a round of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 2, 2016. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)
Syrian chief negotiator and the country's Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja'afari speaks to the media after a round of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 2, 2016. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)

GENEVA (AP) — Russia said Tuesday it supports the inclusion of all opposition parties in Syrian peace talks, including representatives of two hard-line Islamic groups, as President Bashar Assad’s troops captured a village north of Syria’s largest city with the aid of Russian airstrikes.

Syria’s official SANA news agency reported the capture of Hardatneen, north of Aleppo, as UN envoy Staffan de Mistura kicked off what he called a second day of peace talks in Geneva by hosting a government delegation for the second time since Friday. He said he would meet with the main opposition group later in the day.

But opposition figures said they had no scheduled meeting with de Mistura on Tuesday, and condemned what one member called the “crazy escalation” by Syrian and Russian forces around Aleppo.

“We need the international community to intervene with Russia to stop its indiscriminate bombings,” opposition figure Farah Atassi said.

“It’s clear from the current situation that the regime and its allies, in particular Russia, are determined to reject the UN’s effort to implement international law,” she added.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking from Rome at an international conference focusing on the battle against the Islamic State group, also called for a halt to the bombing.

Army of Islam official Mohammed Alloush, gets in to a car heading to a meeting with the opposition's High Negotiations Committee, in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Bassem Mroue)
Army of Islam official Mohammed Alloush, gets in to a car heading to a meeting with the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Bassem Mroue)

“We are all extraordinarily sympathetic to the limits of propriety and common sense in the opposition sitting at the table while someone continues to bomb them,” Kerry said. He added that the UN agreement underpinning the talks states that “when the political dialogue begins, there will be a cease-fire. The expectation is that it shouldn’t take long.”

“We’re not requiring people to sit at the table for months. This is a matter of now,” Kerry said. “We expect a cease-fire. And we expect adherence to a cease-fire. And we expect full humanitarian access.”

Gareth Bayley, the British special envoy for Syria, took aim at Moscow’s tactics, tweeting: “Reports of further intense Russian strikes in Syria on moderate opposition in Aleppo and Homs. While Russia talks, it also bombs.”

Moscow has been a key ally of the Syrian government throughout the five-year uprising and began launching airstrikes on behalf of Assad’s troops four months ago.

The strikes have allowed Syrian troops to advance on a number of fronts. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that monitors both sides of the conflict through activists on the ground, said government troops captured three villages near Aleppo since Monday, opening a key supply route into the city.

The Observatory said heavy aerial bombardment, presumably from Russian warplanes, helped the troops advance.

In Geneva, meanwhile, both sides have accused each other of bad faith. The opposition has insisted that government airstrikes and sieges must stop ahead of the talks, which aim to bring an end to a war that has killed at least 250,000 people and displaced millions from their homes.

Overview of the Syria peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. Indirect peace talks aimed at resolving Syria’s five-year conflict began Friday at the UN headquarters in Geneva, without the participation of the main opposition group. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)
Overview of the Syria peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland on Jan. 29, 2016. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

The government has criticized the makeup of the opposition delegation, specifically the presence of individuals from two hard-line Islamic groups — the Army of Islam and Ahrar al-Sham — that it considers terrorist groups. The government said over the weekend it would “never accept” the inclusion of the two groups in the talks.

After meeting with de Mistura on Tuesday, Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Ja’afari — the head of the government delegation — called the opposition “amateurs” and said his delegation was still waiting for a list of opposition participants.

“We are still in the preparatory stage for indirect peace talks,” he said. “There is no agenda for the meetings. Nothing is clear.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose country has been a pivotal player along with the US in helping bring about the talks, told reporters in Abu Dhabi that Russia believes all opposition parties in Syria except for the Islamic State group and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front should take part in the negotiations.

In this Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015 file photo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attends a meeting with UN Under Secretary General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)
In this Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015 file photo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attends a meeting with UN Under Secretary General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

He said the inclusion of members of the Army of Islam and Ahrar al-Sham in the opposition delegation reflects the “realistic stances” on the ground in Syria. But he added that the Saudi-backed groups’ participation in Geneva does not mean “recognition of them as legitimate partners” for peace, adding that they “are considered terrorist groups.”

The peace talks “should represent all parties of Syrian society,” he said, adding that he hoped the presence of members of the two groups would not derail the process.

The chief negotiator of the High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition group, meanwhile said he was not optimistic about the talks because the situation has not changed on the ground.

UN Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura gestures during a press conference on efforts to restart peace talks, at the United Nations Offices in Geneva on January 25, 2016. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)
UN Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura gestures during a press conference on efforts to restart peace talks, at the United Nations Offices in Geneva on January 25, 2016. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

Mohammed Alloush, of the Army of Islam, which is part of the HNC, told reporters in Geneva that the opposition bloc was still discussing whether to meet with de Mistura in the coming days.

“The situation in the ground has not changed and as long as the situation stays like that there is no optimism from our side and no good intention to reach a solution by the regime,” Alloush said.

De Mistura first met with the group on Monday, declaring it the official start to the first attempt at negotiations since previous Syrian peace talks failed two years ago. There are still no plans for the two sides to meet face-to-face. The “proximity” talks would have them seated in separate rooms and the U.N. envoy shuttling between them.

De Mistura’s office said Tuesday he will invite Syrian women and civil society representatives to contribute to the talks. It said the independent Women’s Advisory Board will initially be composed of a group of 12 women chosen by several Syrian women organizations.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.

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