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Will next round of Geneva talks determine Assad's fate?

The upcoming Geneva talks are once again under the spotlight as Syria approaches the end of the cease-fire.
A boy stands near a hole in the ground after a shell fell in the rebel-held town of Jarjanaz, southern Idlib countryside, Syria March 5, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi         TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTS9EO7

The two-week cease-fire that began Feb. 27 between the warring parties in Syria was either a major breakthrough by Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special envoy for Syria, or it was — well — better than nothing.

The cease-fire agreement was mainly reached for humanitarian purposes; that is reflected by its underlying articles focusing on cessation of hostilities, the entry of aid to besieged areas and the release of detainees. None of those goals has been accomplished to either side's satisfaction, and both sides still want what they want.

The cease-fire agreement was reached between the factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which designated the Supreme Commission for Negotiations to sign on its behalf, and the Syrian regime, in the wake of the US-Russian agreement in early February.

The agreement called for the cessation of hostilities on both sides to prevent any party from taking over territory under the control of the other. It also called for the halt of any military action by the parties against each other and permitted the use of proportionate force to respond to potential breaches. On March 1, de Mistura told media outlets and news agencies that the start of the Geneva negotiations is linked to the achievement of the cease-fire. The talks currently are set to begin March 14.

Ezzedine al-Salem, a member of the political bureau of the Fastaqim Kama Umirt (Be Upright as Ordered) group fighting in Aleppo, described the agreement as a step toward a political solution in Syria — but just a step.

“The cease-fire serves the regime on all levels, and we accepted it for several reasons, most notably to send a strong and clear message that the military opposition — and I mean here the factions — are able to make a unified and consensual decision," Salem told Al-Monitor by phone. "The cease-fire was also approved to allow the entry of aid to the besieged areas and give civilians a break from the airstrikes launched under the scorched-earth policy. The FSA is a fighter, not an offender. It is an army that operates under the spirit of community and morality and applies humanitarian and international law to the extent possible.”

The FSA and the political opposition are open to political action and seek a political solution "subject to the constant conditions of the revolution, starting with the departure of foreign troops all the way to the determination of the fate of Bashar al-Assad and his definite exclusion from Syria, whose land and people must remain united," Salem added.

"The FSA wants to tell the world that it is a popular resistance emanating from a revolution that broke out to defend the Syrian people after the rebels were forced to take up arms to defend themselves against the regime’s killing machine, Hezbollah, Iran and sectarian militias, and most recently Russia, which intervened under the pretext of the war on terrorism.”

Activist and journalist Lubna Saleh from the city of Daraa told Al-Monitor via Skype, “Before the cease-fire, an intensive military escalation was noted in Daraa province on all of the areas outside the regime's control. When the cease-fire started, killings and airstrikes stopped, and no air raid was launched against any area."

However, the regime has since breached the cease-fire "by launching mortar shells and using heavy machine guns in different areas such as the central city of Daraa and al-Yadudah village," Saleh said. "As for the humanitarian situation and aid, nothing has changed, as the people are still suffering from food and medical shortages due to the siege. So far, no sufficient aid has accessed the regions in dire need of relief materials.”

When asked whether the civilians want the cease-fire to be maintained, Saleh said, “The people do not want an extended cease-fire, but rather they want the bloodshed and the conflict to end for good, the detainees to be released, the human tragedy to cease and the siege on the beleaguered areas to be lifted.”

Bassam al-Ahmad, media spokesman for the Violation Documentation Center in Syria, talked to Al-Monitor by phone about the cease-fire and its violations. He said, “We do not see a cease-fire. We see a cessation of hostilities that was not as successful as required, but which has lowered the number of deaths and injuries to half in the various regions of Syria. This cease-fire was violated by the Syrian regime, and later we will issue documentation of all of these violations. We are working on this, and the appropriate measures must be taken against the violators.”

The opposition seems to be pessimistic about the approaching resumption of the negotiation rounds in Geneva that de Mistura set for March 14. They were previously suspended as a result of what Mistura said were the brutal military actions committed by Assad’s regime and backed by Russia.

Mohammed Alloush, chief negotiator for the opposition, told Al-Monitor, “The conditions and circumstances are not ripe yet for resuming negotiations. The regime is still trying to advance to some strategic areas in Rif Dimashq, especially in Daraya, eastern Ghouta, north Hama and Aleppo, which represents a clear violation of the cease-fire agreement. The regime’s warplanes keep bombing civilians. This happened on March 5 in Douma city. The regime is not taking the appropriate humanitarian actions for lifting the siege, allowing the entry of aid and releasing prisoners.”

On whether the Supreme Commission for Negotiations and the opposition plan to attend the upcoming negotiations in Geneva, Alloush said, “When the United States is able to force [the regime] to stop the bombing, free prisoners and allow the entry of aid, we will consider the resumption of negotiations for an effective transfer of power.”

Not all possibilities are open for the upcoming negotiations. The opposition had confirmed in the previous round that it will not return to negotiations in light of the regime’s intransigence and its refusal to make any compromises, especially the implementation of Articles 12 and 13 of UN Resolution 2254 adopted by the UN Security Council.

The regime also confirmed, through Bashar Jaafari, its permanent representative to the UN Security Council, that what it initially wants is to fight terrorism, which means that it will not get involved in any talks on the political process sought by the opposition.

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