GENEVA – A cease-fire in Syria that was imperfect from the start continued to erode on Wednesday, after pro-Assad government warplanes struck the main market of Maarat al-Numan, a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria hostile to terrorist groups.
Fighting on the ground has reached a level so intense that the truce is effectively shattering, opposition leadership said, as officials in Bashar Assad’s regime accused the rebellion of intentionally undermining the agreement.
Assad and his backers in Russia and Iran have said their military campaign is against terrorist organizations – groups outside of a Syria-wide cessation of hostilities agreed upon in February, which largely if temporarily halted fighting between Damascus and Free Syria militants.
The cease-fire does not cover groups internationally classified as terrorist networks – al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate, or Islamic State – which has occasionally complicated enforcement of the truce, as rebel and terrorist groups sometimes operate in the same space.
But the strikes against Maarat al-Numan appear to have been an overt breach of the agreement, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based groups monitoring the war, which called the attack a “massacre.”
As few as 37 and as many as 51 civilians were killed, according to the group.
Even before Tuesday’s market assault, two weeks of air strikes in and around the city of Aleppo were already chipping away at the fragile truce. The regime-led offensive, which has incorporated Russian air strikes, forced opposition leaders to leave political talks here in protest.
The UN-led negotiations based in Geneva, formally known as the intra-Syrian talks, were scheduled to last until April 24. Discussions in March lasted their full scheduled duration but produced few results.
The UN’s special envoy to the crisis, Staffan de Mistura, acknowledged the opposition’s decision to leave on Monday with several heavy sighs. A five-year war as bloody as this one, he said, cannot be resolved in one week’s time.
But the future is unclear for the ambitious peace effort – an endeavor that, according to US Secretary of State John Kerry, is Syria’s last, best hope for peace through diplomacy.
“We’re going to know in a month or two whether or not this transition process is really serious,” Kerry told a congressional panel in February, before the latest round of negotiations began. “If there’s stonewalling,” he added, “we will know.”
He warned that rebel groups considered moderate by the US would be the first to declare the effort a farce.
“It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer,” Kerry added. “There is a significant discussion taking place now about Plan B if we don’t succeed at the table.”
Opposition leadership, as part of a High Negotiations Committee set up by Saudi Arabia to represent the rebellion in the political process, had told the UN that technical experts would remain in Geneva until Friday. De Mistura had hoped to end the second round of talks here with a draft of proposals addressing the structure of a nationwide political transition. But the market attack was the last straw for Riyad Hijab, the HNC’s coordinator, he told press on Tuesday.
“It is not suitable, neither morally nor on the humanitarian side, to be part of negotiations when Syrians are dying daily from sieges, hunger, bombings, poisonous gases and barrel bombs,” he said, before himself departing the Swiss city.
A testy phone call between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted the urgency of the matter. Obama “stressed the importance of pressing the Syrian regime to halt its offensive attacks against the opposition,” according to the White House, which refused to characterize the Geneva talks as a “collapsed” effort.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry also declined to use the term. But it did criticize the HNC on Wednesday, stating that their decision to walk from the talks speaks to their professionalism and their ability to represent the diversity of rebel groups on the ground.
“The Geneva forum should be a ‘workshop’ for agreeing on the outlines of Syria’s future secular statehood and for determining the ways of reaching that, but not an ‘eastern bazaar’ with elements of crude blackmail in respect of the international community,” the ministry said in a statement. “By issuing ultimatums, the Riyadh group, it seems, is trying to mask the fact it has no concrete and realistic proposals.”
As if to emphasize that point, officials from Assad’s government remain in Geneva, where they continued meeting with UN officials at the Palais de Nations on Wednesday.
“To begin with, they [the HNC] do not represent the Syrian people,” Bashar Ja’afari, head of Assad’s delegation here, told journalists. “Quite on the contrary, by leaving they may be taking away a major obstacle that will allow us to reach a solution.”
Ja’afari accused the HNC of encouraging breaches of the cease-fire.
Indeed, HNC officials called on rebel groups to “fight back” when fired upon earlier in the week.
Talks here have never been direct: De Mistura and his aides have been shuttling back and forth between conference rooms in what diplomats like to call “proximity talks.” He had hoped to bring both sides around the same table some time soon.
But despite proclamations by UN, US and Russian officials that the process continues, the mood here at the Palais is one of defeat – filled with the gutting sense of a lost opportunity, undergirded by the insecurity of not knowing what comes next for the Syrian people. The disintegration of the only actionable accomplishment of diplomacy – the cessation of hostilities – is a particularly dispiriting reminder of the challenge ahead.
As disappointed as UN officials may be in the lack of diplomatic progress, they are perhaps even less satisfied with the government’s failure to allow humanitarian caravans into civilian areas besieged by the Syrian military.
Less than 1 percent of those civilians in besieged areas received aid between April 1 and 15, UN officials said. And reports continue to allege the Syrian army is stealing UN medical supplies.
A collapse of what’s left of the cease-fire would likely spell defeat for this particular diplomatic effort.
But while Kerry has characterized the Geneva talks as Syria’s salvation, he has yet to specify what the US will do next should they definitively fail.
Kerry has stated repeatedly that a US “Plan B” is in the works, but has yet to detail it. Several US-based reports suggest such a plan may include increasingly lethal military aid and training for moderate rebel groups.
But such a move would only be to intentionally prolong the war– preventing an Assad victory. Kerry maintains that the conflict has no military solution for either side. The rebels will “keep fighting,” he said in February, unless Assad leaves power.
The White House believes that Assad has lost the legitimacy to govern.
But it has not taken a position on when, precisely, he should leave power, or what role he should take in a political transition.
Visiting Saudi Arabia this week, Obama will meet with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders to discuss the situation in Syria on Thursday, White House officials said. Saudi leaders have said that Assad must leave the Syrian presidency by the end of the war, either by diplomatic or by military means.