U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura announced the formal start on Monday
of the first attempt in two years to negotiate an end to a war that
has killed 250,000 people, caused a refugee crisis in the region and
Europe and empowered Islamic State militants.
But both opposition and government representatives have since said
talks have not in fact begun, and fighting on the ground has raged
on without constraint.
De Mistura acknowledged on Tuesday that a collapse of the Geneva
talks was always possible.
"If there is a failure this time after we tried twice at conferences
in Geneva, for Syria there will be no more hope. We must absolutely
try to ensure that there is no failure," he told Swiss television
The opposition canceled a meeting with him on Tuesday afternoon,
accusing Russia of putting the process at risk with an
"unprecedented" bombing campaign on Aleppo and Homs.
Rebels described the ongoing assault north of Aleppo as the most
intense yet. One commander said opposition-held areas of the divided
city were at risk of being encircled entirely by the government and
allied militia, and appealed to foreign states that back the rebels
to send more weapons.
"How can you accept to enter a negotiations when you have
unprecedented military pressure? The Russians and regime want to
push the opposition out of Geneva so the opposition bears the
responsibility for the failure," said a senior Western diplomat.
Despite calls from the U.S. and its allies for Moscow to stop the
bombing during the peace process, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei
Lavrov said his country had no intention of ending its campaign.
"Russian strikes will not cease until we really defeat terrorist
organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra. And I don't see why these air
strikes should be stopped," he said at a news conference in Oman's
Diplomats and opposition members said they were also taken by
surprise when de Mistura called for immediate efforts to begin
ceasefire negotiations despite there being no official talks or
goodwill measures from the Syrian government.
The opposition has said it will not negotiate unless the government
stops bombarding civilian areas, lifts blockades on besieged towns
and releases detainees.
"The level of confidence between both sides is close to zero," de
Mistura told the BBC late on Tuesday.
"A ceasefire for me is essential. In fact it is the test that shows
the talks are successful," he said, urging Russia and the United
States to work with other major powers to bring it about.
[to top of second column]
The opposition tentatively said it would resume meetings with de
Mistura on Wednesday. Its chief coordinator Riad Hijab, who
diplomats say is a unifying figure for the fragmented opposition, is
expected to arrive in Geneva later in the day.
De Mistura called on Monday for the International Syria Support
Group, which brings together major powers who back and oppose Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad, to tackle the issue of ceasefires
immediately. The group is scheduled to meet in Munich on Feb. 11.
Opposition delegate Nazir Hakim said a general ceasefire in the
current climate was "unrealistic".
"Regarding a ceasefire, we have pragmatic ideas and we talked with
the Americans who head the Syria support group and we look forward
to discussing these ideas at the meeting on February 11," Lavrov
The attack north of Aleppo that began in recent days is the first
major government offensive there since Russian air strikes began on
The area safeguards a rebel supply route from Turkey into
opposition-held parts of the city and stands between government-held
parts of western Aleppo and the Shi'ite villages of Nubul and
al-Zahraa, which are loyal to Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence
in the country, said Russian and Syrian war planes carried out
dozens of air strikes against the rebel towns of Hayan and Hreitan
in northern Aleppo on Wednesday.
A pro-government source in the area said that the army and its
allies were around two km from Nubul and Zahraa, which have been
under rebel siege for around three years.
Senior Syrian opposition negotiator Mohamed Alloush, representing
Jaish al-Islam (Islam Army), a major rebel group, said he was not
optimistic given the events on the ground.
"Our answer will come in two days," he told Reuters without
(Additional reporting by Firas Makdesi and Cecile Mantovani in
Geneva and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; editing by Andrew Roche)
[© 2016 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2016 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.