World leaders hail ‘real progress’ in Syria but opposition balks
World leaders hailed “real progress” in Syria on Friday (Mar 4), but fresh air strikes showed the fragility of the week-old truce and the opposition cast doubt on its attendance at talks next week in Geneva.
Warplanes struck a key rebel bastion east of the Syrian capital for the first time since the fragile truce began last weekend, a monitor said.
“Two air strikes hit the edge of the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta and one person was killed,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
He said either Syrian or Russian planes carried out the strikes. Eastern Ghouta, the largest rebel bastion east of Damascus, had been regularly bombarded by government forces, but has been relatively calm since the ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia.
Russia accused Turkey of continuing to bombard Kurdish positions and allowing jihadist groups to receive weapons across its border.
“Such actions on the part of Turkey, aimed at supporting terrorist groups in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, put the ceasefire in danger,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.
British, French, German and EU foreign ministers met in Paris to discuss the cessation of hostilities, saying there had been “real progress”.
“This cessation of hostilities is by no means perfect but it has reduced the level of violence, it has created an opportunity for some humanitarian access,” said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
The group said the focus now was on convincing all parties to return to UN-brokered peace talks in Switzerland tentatively set for next Wednesday.
“We want a speedy resumption of the negotiations in Geneva, but two conditions must be fulfilled: access for all Syrians to humanitarian aid, and full respect of the ceasefire,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
But after the group met with Riad Hijab, head of Syria’s main opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, he said the “conditions are not ripe” in Syria for a resumption of peace talks.
He cited continued sieges on cities, lack of access for humanitarian aid and ceasefire violations, but said the opposition had not yet decided whether it will come to the talks.
Hijab also said President Bashar al-Assad would have “no place” in a political transition because he has “blood on his hands”.
In Syria meanwhile, for the first time in years, hundreds took advantage of the truce to resume anti-government protests nationwide under the slogan “The Revolution Continues!”
Waving the three-starred tricolour flag that has become the uprising’s emblem, demonstrators in opposition-held areas of Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa and Homs called for Assad’s downfall.
“You could say we’ve gone back to the beginning,” said Hasaan Abu Nuh, an activist from the flashpoint rebel town of Talbisseh in central Homs province.
World leaders expressed a sharp difference of opinion over Assad’s plans to hold elections next month — way ahead of a roadmap agreed in November that did not envision polls for at least 18 months.
“The idea that there could be elections (in April) is not just provocative but totally unrealistic,” said French President Francois Hollande, after meeting his German counterpart Angela Merkel in Paris.
But Assad’s key ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, shot back that the plan for elections “does not interfere with steps to build the peace process”.
The UN envoy on the crisis, Staffan de Mistura, said that whatever the timetable, it had to be Syrians who decided their president’s fate, not outsiders.
“Can’t we leave the Syrians to actually decide on that? Why should we be saying in advance what the Syrians should say, as long as they have the freedom and the opportunity of saying so?” he told France 24 TV.
DISPLACED NOT RETURNING
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said tens of thousands of displaced Syrians along Turkey’s border have not returned home despite the truce.
“Some 100,000 people gathered near the border – including 50,000 in past weeks after the spike in violence in early February from the Syrian government coalition – have not yet started to return home because it’s too dangerous,” MSF head Joanne Liu told AFP.
“We’re in a transition period and I think it will take another few days for things to settle and for people to become convinced there really is a truce.”
But “the movement of people fleeing the (northern) Idlib and Aleppo provinces to the border has decreased enormously”, she added.