The Syrian opposition coalition negotiating in Geneva said Tuesday there can be no solution in Syria with President Bashar Assad in power, and called for international monitors to observe a cessation of hostilities agreement that has all but collapsed.
The head of the U.S. and Saudi-backed coalition, Riad Hijab, also called on the U.N. Security Council to take firm actions against violators- a day after the opposition said it is suspending its participation talks in Geneva as violence rages at home.
Hijab also said a clear timetable for the political transition in Syria is a must – adding such a transition can’t include Assad.
“There cannot be a solution in Syria while Bashar Assad is present,” he said.
As the Geneva talks teetered on collapse, Syrian activists said airstrikes targeted two opposition-held towns in northwestern Syria, killing 44 civilians. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three children among the victims and that it expects the death toll to rise further.
The group said the towns of Maarat al-Numan and Kafranbel in Idlib province were hit, both known as pro-opposition strongholds. Observatory’s chief Rami Abdurrahman said the strikes were among the deadliest since the cease-fire took effect in Syria at the end of February. He did not say who was behind the strikes.
Meanwhile, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said extremists took control of the Syrian opposition group, effectively hijacking the Syrian peace talks. Moscow is a major ally of Assad.
Alexei Borodavkin told the Russian Tass news agency on Tuesday that “the suspension of the Syrian opposition delegation’s participation in peace talks is proof that, unfortunately, extremists took control within the delegation.”
Borodavkin said the talks will continue without the groups who pulled out, implying that the extremists were backed by Saudi Arabia, and saying that opposition groups “other than the ‘Riyadh’ groups, would still participate in the peace talks.
Fighting, meanwhile, intensified in Syria as government forces sought to repel a rebel offensive on a government stronghold. The rebels had said they launched the offensive in rural Latakia in response to government violations of the truce, and to “redress injustices.” Government warplanes also bombed areas in the central Homs and Hama provinces and in northern Idlib province, activists said.
In Geneva, Hijab said during a lengthy press conference that the opposition coalition can’t take part in talks while the Syrian regime carries on with its military campaign and denies humanitarian access to besieged areas or ones held by the rebels. His comments come despite earlier remarks by the U.N. envoy who said the opposition will remain in Geneva to engage in technical discussions until he can “take stock” of the situation on Friday.
“The United Nations Security Council must meet and reconsider this (cessation of hostilities) agreement and there must be international monitors on the ground … (to) decide who violates this truce,” Hijab said. “We are not waiting for reevaluation on Thursday or Friday. For us, as of yesterday, we are out of the political process.”
Hijab said he will be leaving Geneva with other members of the delegation. But he said a technical team will remain in the city, although its members will not go to the United Nations headquarters.
While the indirect talks were to focus on political transition, the warring sides became bogged down on Assad’s role in it. Aided by Russian air power which entered Syrian skies in late September, the Syrian army and allied militiamen have reversed the tide of the war in recent months, making rapid advances against its opponents.
Hijab said the government had benefited from the cease-fire to advance on rebel positions while its allies continued to supply it with weapons and fighters to change the balance of power on the ground.
Hijab complained that supplies and ammunition were denied to rebel forces during the truce period. He said he hoped the U.S., a main backer of some rebel groups, would continue supplying weapons.
“We will fight no matter the circumstances. We will fight even with stones, and will not surrender,” he said.
The cessation of hostilities agreement, in effect since late February, has frayed in many parts of the country.
On Tuesday, activists reported government airstrikes and violence in Homs, Idlib, Hama. Under a blanket of airstrikes, government troops restored control of most of the villages and hills it lost to rebels a day earlier during their offensive in rural Latakia, reported the Local Coordination Committee, an activist-operated media forum and al-Manar TV, affiliated with the pro-Assad Lebanese Hezbollah group.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least five people were killed, including a child, in government airstrikes near Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province.
Meanwhile, the LCC reported government airstrikes, including barrel bombs, in multiple locations in Homs province. The group said there was intense fighting in Kafer-Laha in central Homs.
Tuesday’s violence came a day after the Syrian opposition said it was pausing its formal participation in the Geneva talks because of what it said were hundreds of government violations of a cease-fire agreement over two months.
Also, the Kremlin spokesman says Russia will continue to support further talks in Geneva.
During a conference call on Tuesday with journalists, Dmitry Peskov reaffirmed Russia’s support for Assad and said Russia would continue to oppose terrorist groups.
According to Peskov, President Putin, when speaking to U.S. President Barack Obama yesterday, stressed the need to continue dialogue and maintain the current U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire.