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Syria Peace Talks Inch Ahead as Bloodshed Continues

As a suicide attack killed more than 40 people near a revered shrine in Syria on Sunday and government forces pummeled a besieged town, peace talks inched forward in Geneva, where a reluctant opposition delegation met for the first time with a United Nations mediator.

With that step, opposition delegates signaled new, if tenuous, hope that the Geneva talks could bring a modicum of progress on their immediate demands: an end to starvation sieges and indiscriminate bombings, and the release of prisoners.

There were signs that the Syrian government and opposition were exploring avenues for progress on those issues, even as the violence around the Syrian capital, Damascus, served as a reminder of the powerful forces opposing any compromise.

The extremist Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, south of Damascus near the Sayeda Zeinab shrine, a beloved place of worship, a haven for displaced Syrians and a crucial symbol that leaders have used to motivate pro-government Shiite militias. The government also signaled a hard line with a heavy barrage of barrel bombs on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Moadhamiyeh, already troubled by a rising number of malnutrition cases.

Doctors in Moadhamiyeh reported seeing 97 patients with symptoms of suffocation, and while the doctors did not have equipment to test for toxins, they said they had not seen so many cases since the chemical attacks of 2013. The United States and its allies blamed those attacks on the government, which denied responsibility.

But in Geneva, opposition delegates were compiling a list of 3,800 prisoners for possible discussions about an exchange, and proposing to their allies that they unilaterally lift a siege on two government-held towns. In Madaya, a rebel-held town besieged by the government, residents said lists of the sick and wounded were being drawn up in case evacuations were made possible under a deal.

An opposition spokesman hinted Sunday night that if there was even a small measure of tangible progress on the humanitarian issues, the delegation might agree to discuss the broader issues of ending the war in talks with the United Nations mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

"We hope that he will do something to make things easier to start negotiations," the spokesman, Salem al-Meslet, said Sunday after representatives met with Mr. de Mistura briefly in their Geneva hotel. "We hope we see something tomorrow."

The opposition has refused to take part in any formal negotiations until those measures — mandated by United Nations Security Council resolutions — are carried out, and it demanded assurances before meeting with Mr. de Mistura.

But now, both delegations are scheduled to meet with him on Monday, the government in the morning and the opposition in the late afternoon. The talks, at this initial stage, were never meant to be face to face; the plan is for the mediator to shuttle between the parties. Despite the efforts, made under heavy pressure from the United States and Russia to move ahead, the attacks outside Damascus were reminders of the difficulty of ending the five-year war.

The attack on the Sayeda Zeinab shrine appeared designed to remind the government and its allies, including Iran and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, that despite gains on the battlefield with the help of Russian air power, they remain vulnerable even in tightly held government territory and in places of extreme symbolic significance.

The attack was also part and parcel of the effort by the Sunni-led Islamic State to intensify the sectarian aspect of the conflict. The group emphasized that by using slurs for Shiites, whom it considers apostates, in its statements claiming responsibility.

The Sayeda Zeinab shrine, in what was once a busy market area, has been an important symbol that has helped motivate Shiite militia recruits from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan fighting in Syria on the side of the government, with their leaders exhorting them to defend the shrine.

The town has become a foothold for Hezbollah and other Shiite militias assisting the government in fighting insurgents in the Damascus suburbs, but it also houses civilians displaced from Shiite towns in northern Syria.

The town was once a symbol of coexistence, mostly Sunni and centered on a shrine holy to all Muslims but especially to Shiites. The shrine honors the early Islamic figure Zeinab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad who lost her brothers and sons in battle and was taken to Damascus as a prisoner. She has long been honored, particularly by Shiites, as a symbol of sacrifice and steadfastness.

Fighting has reached there before, in the form of insurgent mortar attacks and government bombardments, but the bombing on Sunday appeared to be one of the largest to hit the area.

In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry made a public appeal on Sunday, asking all sides to "seize the opportunity for serious negotiations" to end the conflict, saying that the diplomatic effort had reached a "pivotal stage."

"While battlefield dynamics can affect negotiating leverage, in the end there is no military solution to this conflict," Mr. Kerry said in remarks streamed on the State Department's website.

"Without negotiations, the bloodshed will drag on until the last city is reduced to rubble and virtually every home, every form of infrastructure, and every semblance of civilization is destroyed," he said. "And that will ensure an increased number of terrorists created by, and attracted to, this fight. This conflict could easily engulf the region if left to spiral completely out of control."

Mr. Kerry once again denounced the government of President Bashar al-Assad, saying it was "by far the primary source of killing, torture and deprivation in this war," but his appeal also seemed focused on getting the opposition to the table.

Mr. Kerry has been an important broker pushing for the talks, along with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov. The two men spoke by telephone on Saturday as momentum stalled.

According to the official Russian news agency TASS, the diplomats agreed "at the initial stage of the negotiations all sides must concentrate on settling humanitarian issues," like delivering aid to besieged areas, "and only then get to political reforms and elections."

That was a new signal that Russia had agreed to begin with humanitarian measures, as the opposition has demanded.

Diplomats and analysts said the talks would have to make swift progress to keep the sides coming to the table.

Salman Sheikh, a former United Nations diplomat in close touch with the opposition, said that whether these talks made any progress depended on how hard Russia and the United States pushed to carry out the humanitarian measures they had endorsed in the Security Council.

"These guys came on assurances," he said of the opposition. "They're looking for practical steps."

For its part, the opposition is prepared to make a unilateral concession, Mr. Meslet said. He said the delegation had proposed that insurgents lift their siege on the northern Syrian government-held towns of Fouaa and Kfarya, "just to prove that we are clean and serious."

But he had not yet presented that idea to Mr. de Mistura, he said. In one of many obstacles to the talks, the opposition delegation, the High Negotiations Committee, has ties to some, but not all, of the fighters on the ground. The opposition delegates had sent their suggestion to Syria, and were waiting to hear if commanders on the front lines would agree.

[Source: By Anne Barnard and Somini Senguptaj, The New York Times, Geneva, 31Jan16]

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Syria War
small logoThis document has been published on 01Feb16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.