U.N. Envoy Calls for Major Syria Meeting to Save Truce and Peace Talks

Civil defence members evacuate a woman after airstrikes in the rebel held area of old Aleppo, April 22. The U.N. special envoy for Syria has called for urgent meeting of ministers from major and regional powers to sustain Syria's truce. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, April 23 – The U.N. special envoy for Syria called on Friday for an urgent meeting of ministers from major and regional powers to sustain the threadbare truce in Syria, as well as troubled peace talks and humanitarian aid efforts.

“Yes we do need certainly a new ISSG at ministerial level,” envoy Staffan de Mistura said, referring to the International Syria Support Group which includes the United States, Russia, the European Union, Iran, Turkey and Arab states.

De Mistura compared the apparently stalled political talks on Syria’s future, the unravelling ceasefire agreement and the still limited humanitarian relief deliveries to the three legs of a table.

“The level of danger to the table made of three legs – and a table of three legs is always fragile by definition – (means that help) is urgently required,” de Mistura said.

“When one of them is in difficulty we can make it. When all three of them are finding some difficulty, it’s time to call the ISSG.” He gave no date or venue for the high-level ISSG.

The envoy said he planned to continue peace talks next week, probably until Wednesday, despite the “worrisome trends on the ground”, adding that he would seek clarity from government negotiators about their interpretation of political transition.

The government, which says the future of President Bashar al-Assad is not up for discussion in Geneva, says that political transition will come in the shape of a national unity government including current officials, opposition and independent figures.

“Is this going to be cosmetic, is this going to be real, and if it is real what does it mean for the opposition and so on?” he said.

Opposition negotiators have rejected any proposal which leaves Assad in power. They have also accused the government of violating a February “cessation of hostilities” agreement, pointing to air strikes on rebel-held areas which have killed dozens of people this week.

The government says rebel fighters broke the truce by joining insurgents not covered by the deal in an offensive against the army and its militia allies in the north.

“According to all objective criteria, comparing to the past this cessation of hostilities is still in effect, I repeat, is still in effect. None of the sides have renounced it, delegitimised it, and it is still in effect. But it is great trouble if we don’t act quickly.”

The main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has left the peace talks in protest against the escalating fighting and slow aid deliveries, leaving only a few representatives for informal technical sessions with de Mistura’s team.

De Mistura conceded that the situation was “extremely polarised” between the two sides. “But luckily there is also a strong feeling of urgency in not dropping what is the ‘Mother of all Issues’, political transition and getting deeper in this.”

De Mistura was asked to clarify his remarks on Radio Television Suisse (RTS) on Thursday night, when he used the figure of 400,000 for the death toll in the five-year conflict.

“We had 250,000 as a figure two years ago. Well, two years was two years ago. But if you want to make estimate about how many people disappeared, how many wounded people have died, how many secondary lives were lost, in other words after any incident or after a conflict due to lack of medical support, I’m afraid we would not be far away, and I hope I am totally wrong, from the 400,000 figure.”

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