Syria’s warring parties spar over collapsing cease-fire

The head of Syria's government delegation at the Geneva talks lashed out on Wednesday at the country's Western- and Saudi-backed opposition, calling them "politically immature" and saying their walkout from the negotiations removes a "major obstacle" to finding a political solution to the conflict.

BEIRUT — The head of Syria’s government delegation at the Geneva talks lashed out on Wednesday at the country’s Western- and Saudi-backed opposition, calling them “politically immature” and saying their walkout from the negotiations removes a “major obstacle” to finding a political solution to the conflict.

The remarks by Bashar Ja’afari, who is also Syria’s U.N. ambassador, echoed earlier barbs by a Turkey-based opposition leader who accused President Bashar Assad’s forces of effectively having “buried” the cease-fire in Syria.

The verbal sparring came as activists reported that ambulances and buses entered four besieged communities in Syria to evacuate around 500 sick residents.

At the United Nations, Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the U.N. chief, told reporters plans were underway to evacuate the 500 who are in “urgent need of life-saving medical attention.” He did not give details on the timing or where the people would be taken.

“The sad thing is, we should not have to negotiate medical evacuations,” Dujarric added.

International aid organizations have pleaded for the evacuation of dozens of residents with urgent medical needs from these communities, which have been besieged by government forces and rebels.

The deal is also part of the now-teetering cease-fire agreement in place since Feb. 27, which greatly reduced violence in the first weeks but has all but collapsed now amid fierce fighting in Syria’s north in the past week.

On Tuesday, at least 44 people, mostly civilians were killed in government airstrikes on opposition-held areas in northern Idlib province. The day before, the opposition declared that the government’s violations of the cease-fire were unacceptable.

Anas al-Abda, the leader of the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, said there will be no quick return by the opposition to the talks in Geneva if the current situation continues.

“The regime buried the truce yesterday,” Al-Abda said, speaking at a press conference in Turkey. He was referring to the strikes in Idlib.

He also claimed that there have been more than 2,100 violations of the truce by government forces in the past 53 days. “There will be no quick return to negotiations if the current situation continues,” al-Abda said.

The SNC is part of the Higher Negotiations Committee, the Syrian opposition coalition negotiating in Geneva. Al-Abda’s comments come after HNC chief Riad Hijab said Tuesday there can be no solution in Syria with Assad remaining in power and called for international monitors to observe a cease-fire in Syria.

Hijab vowed to fight “even with stones” to depose Assad, shifting sharply to a tone of conflict over conciliation.

In Geneva, Ja’afari said on Wednesday that members of the opposition were “extremists” and “mercenaries.” He ridiculed Hijab’s comments, referring to him as “sulking” child, and denounced the opposition’s walkout as “politically immature.”

He reiterated that his government’s position is that any political solution for Syria would include a broad-based unity government, an amended constitution and parliamentary elections.

“Any group that thinks otherwise is living an illusion, is undermining the Geneva talks, is wasting their time and ours,” Ja’afari said.

The HNC does not want Assad to have any role in a future Syria. U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura said he will take stock of where the talks stand on Friday.

The calculated gamble by the opposition to jeopardize what diplomats have called the best chance in years to bring a diplomatic end to Syria’s five-year war reflects its growing frustration over unproductive peace talks and hundreds of government cease-fire violations in recent weeks.

The opposition coalition accuses the government of preparing an assault on the city of Aleppo, ignoring its demands for the release of thousands of detainees, and rejecting or avoiding requests for U.N.-led humanitarian aid shipments in recent weeks.

It says those are signs of bad faith by Assad’s side and accuses Damascus of stalling for time in the Geneva talks.

On Wednesday, activists posted pictures of buses driving into the town of Madaya, which fell under siege to government and allied Lebanese Hezbollah forces last year.

Images of starving residents and children in the town and other places have fuelled calls for ending sieges, warning that they threaten to kill critically ill or injured people. According to activists and a media report on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, about 500 residents were to be evacuated Wednesday.

Madaya, northeast of Damascus, and Zabadani, near the border with Lebanon, have been besieged by government forces and allied militia for months. Fouaa and Kfarya villages in the northern province of Idlib have been blockaded by rebels for over a year.

The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said the buses of the Syrian Red Crescent came under fire in Madaya. There was no immediate comment from the Red Crescent. The Observatory said six people have already been evacuated on medical grounds from Foua and Kfraya while two were evacuated from Zabadani in the deal sponsored by the United Nations and co-ordinated by the Red Crescent.

The evacuation would be the first major one since the cease-fire. In December, 460 people from the four communities were evacuated.

Separately, a U.N. convoy evacuated 290 Islamic State militants and 150 of their family members from Dumair, a Damascus-area town, to Raqqa, the extremist group’s de facto capital, in northeast Syria, according to a Hezbollah media outlet. The town has been at the centre of ongoing clashes between pro-government forces, Islamist militants, and IS fighters.

And the Observatory and other activists reported fighting between pro-government militias and Kurdish forces in Qamishli, in Syria’s northeast. The observatory said 25 militiamen were arrested or killed by Kurdish forces in the city, which has been shared generally peacefully between the two sides, despite sporadic outbreaks of violence.