Syria peace talks stall as regime forces advance

The US and France accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of undermining talks to end Syria’s civil war, which were suspended hours before donors vowed on Thursday to boost aid efforts for the conflict-torn country.

As world leaders gathered for the donors’ conference in London, Assad’s forces and pro-regime fighters entered two Shiite villages that had been under rebel siege, after advancing in a key offensive around the second city of Aleppo.

Syria’s state news agency SANA reported “mass celebrations in the streets of Nubol and Zahraa welcoming army troops and celebrating the breaking of the siege.”

The Al-Manar television station of Lebanese militia Hezbollah broadcast what it said was exclusive footage of Syrian government and allied fighters entering the villages.

The channel showed crowds embracing soldiers and militiamen, who fired into the air as they arrived.

French French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius accused Damascus and Russia of “torpedoing the peace efforts” in Geneva by launching the offensive, and said world powers would hold “in-depth consultations” on their actions at the conference in the British capital.

The UN paused the fruitless peace negotiations on Wednesday as the Syrian government said it had cut a key supply route to Syria’s second city from the Turkish border with the help of Russian air strikes.

The suspension of the talks came as donors gathered in London with the aim of raising $9 billion (8 billion euros) in aid for Syria and to help its neighbours cope with millions of people that have taken refuge on their soil.

The peace talks had been tipped as the most important push so far to end Syria’s bloody five-year conflict, which has killed more than 260,000 people and forced half the country’s people from their homes.

But they stalled before any progress had been made, with the main umbrella opposition group saying it would not return to Geneva until the regime agreed to end bombardments and allow aid into besieged cities.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said discussions would resume on February 25, insisting this was “not the end or the failure of the talks” and calling on all players to work harder to make them a success.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the Syrian government’s push to grab territory just as negotiations were meant to be getting underway proved the regime was not serious about the talks.

– ‘Biggest humanitarian crisis’ –

“The continued assault by Syrian regime forces — enabled by Russian air strikes — against opposition-held areas… have clearly signalled the intention to seek a military solution rather than enable a political one,” he said.

Ahead of the start of the donor talks, Britain pledged £1.2 billion in aid, to be spent between 2016 and 2020, to address what Prime Minister David Cameron called “the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis”.

Some 4.6 million Syrians have fled to nearby countries — Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt — while hundreds of thousands have journeyed to Europe in the region’s biggest migration crisis since World War II.

“With hundreds of thousands of people risking their lives crossing the Aegean or the Balkans, now is the time to take a new approach to the humanitarian disaster in Syria,” Cameron said.

In an editorial in the Guardian newspaper, Cameron warned that a shortfall in UN funding for Syria “is fatally holding back the humanitarian effort”.

“Last year, across the whole international community, only half of the money requested by the UN was raised,” he said.

– ‘Lost generation’ –

Aid from the conference will be targeted at helping the economies of Syria’s neighbours, creating jobs for refugees and citizens of their host countries. It will also go towards food, shelter, medical care and rebuilding health facilities in Syria itself.

Organisers have already agreed that participants should at least “double” their contributions from 2015, when they raised $3.3 billion.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende said there was a “moral imperative, human imperative” to act.

“It’s a lost generation if we’re not successful tomorrow,” he said ahead of the conference.

De Mistura’s brief at the Geneva discussions was to coax both sides into six months of indirect “proximity talks” envisioned under a November roadmap, but problems plagued his efforts from the outset.

The opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) arrived several days late — and reluctantly — insisting on immediate steps to allow aid to get through to besieged cities, a halt to the bombardment of civilians and the release of thousands of prisoners.

Riad Hijab, HNC chief coordinator, said late Wednesday the group “will not return until the humanitarian demands are met or (we) see something on the ground”.

They were set to hold a final meeting on Thursday before leaving Geneva, a source close to the opposition told AFP.

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