GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) – Syria’s main opposition body threatened Saturday to quit UN-mediated peace talks before they even get going as the rising death toll from starvation highlighted the dire humanitarian situation in the wartorn 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 insisted it will not engage in formal negotiations, even indirectly, with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime until UN Security Council resolutions requiring an end to sieges of towns are adhered to.
“If the regime insists on continuing to commit these crimes then the HNC delegation’s presence in Geneva will not be justified,” HNC coordinator Riad Hijab warned in a statement in Arabic posted online.
“The delegation will inform (UN special envoy Staffan) de Mistura of its intentions to withdraw its negotiating team if the UN and world powers are unable to stop these violations,” said Hijab, who was not among those present in Geneva.
“We are keen to negotiate success. We are ready to start negotiating but at least we should see something,” Salem al-Meslet, a spokesman for the group, said after arriving in Geneva.
Highlighting the alarming humanitarian situation, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Saturday 16 more people had starved to death in Madaya, one of more than a dozen towns blockaded either by regime or rebel forces.
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.
The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights monitoring group reported Saturday that “10 civilians, among them three children and four women, were killed Saturday by suspected Russian air strikes against an IS-controlled village in the eastern Deir Ezzor province”.
A source close to the HNC said the grouping was sending 17 negotiators and 25 others to Geneva, and was expected to meet de Mistura on Sunday. A 16-member government delegation 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 fueled the meteoric rise of the extremist Islamic State group.
Millions of those fleeing the conflict have sought refuge in neighboring countries and hundreds of thousands of Syrians 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 complexities of the conflict, involving a tangled web of moderate rebels, Islamist fighters, Kurds, jihadists 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.
IS 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 de Mistura will shuttle between participants.
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 hoping to be included — including Saleh Muslim, head of the powerful Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) — have left Geneva after not receiving invitations, sources told AFP on Saturday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who wants Kurdish involvement in the talks, will meet his US counterpart John Kerry on February 11 to review progress, Lavrov’s office said 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.