By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Stephanie Nebehay
AMMAN/GENEVA, Jan 30 – A delegation from Syria’s main opposition group flew to Geneva on Saturday to assess whether to join Damascus government officials in United Nations-brokered peace talks, an opposition representative said.
The 17-strong team included the head of the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), which includes political and militant opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s five-year civil war.
The HNC has said it wants to discuss humanitarian issues including a stop to Russian and Syrian government bombing before engaging in the peace talks that started on Friday in Geneva.
Russian air strikes on Syria have killed nearly 1,400 civilians since Moscow started its aerial campaign nearly four months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said on Saturday.
“We are going to Geneva to put to the test the seriousness of the international community in its promises to the Syrian people and to also test the seriousness of the regime in implementing its humanitarian obligations,” Riyad Naasan Agha said.
“We want to show the world our seriousness in moving towards negotiations to find a political solution,” he told Reuters.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Saturday the Geneva talks must ensure human rights are upheld as participants work towards a political transition in Syria.
“Humanitarian law must be respected and the objective of a political transition actively pursued to enable the talks to succeed,” Fabius said in a statement sent to Reuters.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov was quoted by Russian Interfax news agency as saying that no direct talks were expected in Geneva, only proxy talks.
Gatilov, whose country has also objected to the opposition’s composition saying it included groups that it deemed as terrorist, said there were no preconditions for the Syrian talks and that Moscow welcomed the decision by Syrian opposition coordinator, Riad Hijab, to take part in talks in Geneva.
U.N. SETS OUT AIMS
The U.N. earlier said the aim would be six months of talks, first seeking a ceasefire, later working toward a political settlement to a war that has killed more than 250,000 people, driven more than 10 million from their homes and drawn in global powers
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag the negotiations would be a test of intentions.
“Only at the negotiating table will it become clear if both sides are prepared to make painful compromises so that the killing stops and Syrians have a chance of a better future in their own country.”
The HNC’s demands include allowing aid convoys into rebel-held besieged areas where tens of thousands are living in dire conditions, Agha said.
The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Saturday that 16 people had starved to death in the government-besieged town of Madaya since aid convoys arrived this month and blamed the authorities for blocking medical supplies shipments.
“It is totally unacceptable that people continue to die from starvation, and that critical medical cases remain in the town when they should have been evacuated weeks ago,” said Brice de le Vingne, MSF’s director of operations in a statement.
Agha said the opposition delegation, including HNC head Hijab and chief negotiator Asaad al-Zoubi, would not call for a complete cessation of hostilities but would demand an end to “the indiscriminate shelling of markets, hospitals and schools by the regime and its Russian backers”.
Russia and Syria deny targeting civilians, saying they take great care to avoid bombing residential areas.
Separately, the heavy Russian aerial bombing campaign continued unabated in northern Syria on Saturday with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying the areas hit included rebel-held villages and towns in the Aleppo countryside near the border with Turkey.
Russian aerial strikes were also reported by the monitor in Hama countryside and in the eastern province of Deir al Zor.
Heavy clashes also continued in the Latakia countryside where the Syrian army backed by intensive Russian carpet bombing in the rugged mountainous area allowed the government to regain most of the countryside close to the coastal heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.
In separate comments before heading to Geneva, Zoubi said they would not engage in any negotiations before goodwill measures were taken. These had to include a halt to bombing of civilian areas.
“Without concrete steps, Geneva would be futile” he told Reuters.
He said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave assurances by phone to the HNC’s leadership, saying Washington supported a UN-backed political transition period without Assad – a bone of contention among warring parties.
The HNC have also been under pressure by mainstream armed groups represented within it not to give in to Western pressure perceived as a sellout, with some rebel groups already threatening to pull out of the body.
“Preserving principles after entering the political process whose rules are against us will turn into an impossible mission with the absence of assurances and few honest mediators,” said Labib al Nahhas, a prominent figure in Islamist Ahrar al Sham, which is represented on the HNC, on his Twitter account.