Syria peace talks on track despite 'truce violations'

Drawings by an eight-year-old from Aleppo, Syria, of her journey to a refugee camp on the Greece- Macedonia border. The last round of talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the main opposition body collapsed last month.
Drawings by an eight-year-old from Aleppo, Syria, of her journey to a refugee camp on the Greece- Macedonia border. The last round of talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the main opposition body collapsed last month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

US State Secretary Kerry insists levels of violence already reduced by up to 90%

HAFR AL-BATIN (Saudi Arabia) • United States Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that Washington believes that United Nations-sponsored peace talks should go ahead tomorrow despite "perceived" truce violations by Syrian government forces.

Speaking after breakfast with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, Mr Kerry said that Russian and American monitors would meet in Amman and Geneva later in the day to try to further reduce violence in Syria, and that he planned to request a call with his Russian counterpart, Mr Sergei Lavrov.

Asked if the talks can go ahead as planned despite ceasefire violations, Mr Kerry said: "Yes, it can."

Syria's main opposition group said it would attend the peace talks in Geneva tomorrow, but accused the government of President Bashar al-Assad of preparing to escalate the war to strengthen its negotiating position.

Mr Kerry, who flew to Saudi Arabia on Friday for talks with King Salman and other senior officials, said the level of violence "by all accounts has been reduced by 80 to 90 per cent, which is very, very significant. And what we want to do is continue to work to reduce these".

"But we've made it very, very clear that the Assad regime cannot use this process as a way to exploit the situation, when others are trying in good faith to abide by it. And there is a limit to the patience with respect to that," he added.

Meanwhile, Syria's foreign minister said yesterday that the government delegation to the shaky peace talks in Geneva will wait no more than 24 hours for the opposition delegation to arrive.

"Our delegation will leave for Geneva tomorrow... We will wait 24 hours and if no one is there, then we will return," Mr Walid Muallem told a news conference in Damascus.

He insisted that the opposition delegation take part in talks at UN headquarters in the Swiss city, deriding them for "spending the last round in hotels".

"Otherwise, we will not waste our time," Mr Muallem said. The last round of talks in Geneva between the government and the main opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, collapsed last month.

At the time, the opposition delegation arrived in Switzerland roughly 36 hours after the government delegation, but waited another two days to head to UN headquarters.

UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura said the talks launch would start the countdown to UN-monitored presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months.

But Mr Muallem said Mr de Mistura "has no right" to discuss future presidential elections. "This right is exclusively for the Syrian people," the top diplomat said.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'Syria peace talks on track despite 'truce violations''. Print Edition | Subscribe