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UN officials disappointed over suspension of Syrian peace talks

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A man carrying belongings on his head looks on as Syrians fleeing the northern embattled city of Aleppo wait on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, in Bab-Al Salama in northern Syria, near a Turkish crossing gate. Nearly 40,000 Syrian civilians have fled a regime offensive near Aleppo, a monitor said, as Turkey warned it was bracing for a wave of tens of thousands of refugees. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Bulent Kilic

UNITED NATIONS — UN ambassadors on both sides of the war in Syria said they were disappointed Friday that the much-touted intra-Syrian peace talks that began in Geneva a week ago had been suspended Wednesday, after a few days of discussion.

But the French and Russian ambassadors to the UN — who have aligned themselves with the Syrian opposition and Syrian government, respectively, expressed some hope that the talks could continue, as rescheduled, on Feb. 25.

“We were, of course, upset that the talks, after just starting, were not continued,” said Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, speaking to reporters after Special UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and the UN’s humanitarian operations chief, John Ging, briefed members of the Security Council by video teleconference.

Churkin said the opposition group had come to the conference not to negotiate an end to the five-year war that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and sparked a deteriorating global crisis but to find a “pretext” to abandon them.

“We are disappointed that the opposition was not as representative as it is supposed to be,” he said, referring to the High Negotiations Committee, a Saudi Arabia-assembled coalition of opposition groups that is backed by the United States, France and Britain and which does not include others, such as a Syrian Kurdish opposition group that Turkey, a member of the group, considers a terrorist group.

Churkin went on to say that “more work needs to be done” to make the opposition more inclusive of the key players in Syria’s war when talks resume.

Some diplomats have said that de Mistura called for a pause in the talks as military activity by Russia and the Syrian government increased dramatically and in contrast to a key aim of the conference: a pause in hostilities leading to a cease fire and the delivery of humanitarian aid in cities that are besieged.

Churkin scoffed at the suggestion that Russia was to blame for the interruption, adding that the escalation of fighting helped lift a yearslong siege around Aleppo and that some humanitarian objectives had been achieved because of it.

Even before the start of the talks, opposition leaders had begun insisting on the cease fire and humanitarian access, almost as preconditions to the talks, which Churkin suggested was all but an excuse not to participate.

“All those things needed to be addressed during those talks, so those people who have encouraged the opposition to essentially walk out of the talks, who have been refusing our continued offers for them to arrange really practical cooperation between us and them in the area of Syria do not have much ground to criticize us, nor moral or formal ground to criticize us,” Churkin said.

France’s UN ambassador, Francois Dellatre, stood at the same podium outside the Security Council chamber that Syria and its backers — Russia and Iran — have been duplicitous.

“The presentation by Staffan de Mistura confirms what we already knew,” he said. “The Syrian regime and its allies have made no concession. Quite the contrary, on the one hand the Syrian regime claims to discuss peace in Geneva, and on the other hand it intensifies its military offensive against opposition groups with which it is supposed to discuss and imposes on the city of Aleppo an unprecedented torrent of fire.”

Russia began assisting Syrian fighters in late September, striking groups it calls terrorists who are trying to undermine the Syrian government led by Bashar Assad. The United States and members of a coalition of countries launched airstrikes against Islamic State and Nusra Front a year earlier.

Islamic State and Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qaida, are targets of both the U.S.-led coalition, which is backing those opposing Assad, and Syria’s allies in Russia and Iran, but critics charge that Russia is attacking opposition groups backed by the U.S.-led coalition in addition to their common enemies.

Dellatre said the UN Security Council resolution that provided the framework for the intra-Syrian talks required humanitarian access for residents of Syrian cities trapped by government and opposition forces and who have been blocked off from food and medicine for months.

France expects the regime and its allies to respect their humanitarian obligations under resolution 2254 of the Security Council, namely ... “the cessation of indiscriminate bombing, removing sieges and full humanitarian access to Syrian populations. On the ground this is the opposite that we see.”

In answering questions from reporters about the prospect for success after the resumption of talks, however, Dellatre expressed some optimism.

“We will not give up because we cannot give up,” he said. “There is always hope when there is resolve and willingness.”

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