GENEVA — The United Nations on Wednesday temporarily suspended the fledgling talks aimed at ending the war in Syria and called on the countries fueling the conflict to do more to yield results, as Syrian government forces sharply escalated an offensive on a strategic rebel-held city.
“I have concluded, frankly, that after the first week of preparatory talks there is more work to be done, not only by us but by the stakeholders,” the United Nations mediator, Staffan de Mistura, said after meeting with the opposition delegation on Wednesday evening at a Geneva hotel that serves as its headquarters.
Mr. de Mistura took pains to add that the pause did not mean “the end or the failure of the talks.” In a statement later in the evening, he suggested that the government’s failure to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Syria by allowing food and medicine into rebel-held towns had prevented any serious discussions.
“I’m not prepared to have talks for the sake of talks,” he said, adding that they would resume no later than Feb. 25.
The pause is sure to loom over a donor conference that starts on Thursday in London, where the world’s rich countries are to discuss raising money to feed and house Syrians scattered around the world.
Last year, donors gave barely half of what was needed; rations were cut for Syrians living in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey; and hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled across the Mediterranean to Europe.
In announcing a recess in Geneva, Mr. de Mistura essentially kicked the ball over to the countries that are backing each side on the battlefield. Foreign ministers from the United States and Russia, along with the regional powers that support the government and opposition sides, are to meet again next Thursday in Germany.
The recess comes as Russian airstrikes have helped Syrian forces make major advances in the conflict and made them far less likely, diplomats say, to enter into serious negotiations. At the same time, the rebels and their backers in Saudi Arabia and Turkey are hard-pressed to negotiate a political deal, or even a truce, without a guarantee that their chief nemesis, President Bashar al-Assad, will be ousted.
In a statement issued Wednesday from London, where he was to attend the donor conference, Secretary of State John Kerry called on the Assad government to cease the bombing of rebel forces. He said it was “past time for them to meet existing obligations and restore the international community’s confidence in their intentions of supporting a peaceful resolution.”
The talks in Geneva had barely begun, with Mr. de Mistura meeting a government delegation last Friday and continuing meetings with the main opposition delegation on Monday and Wednesday. The gulf between the two sides remains so wide that they were never meant to meet face to face.
There was discord over who would represent the opposition and what would be discussed, and by the time both parties arrived in Geneva, the goals were ratcheted down. The opposition delegation insisted that no political negotiations could begin until sieges had been lifted on rebel-held towns, airstrikes halted and political prisoners released.
Yet the suspension of the talks made it clear that even those modest goals were not to be met anytime soon.
The opposition bloc, known as the High Negotiating Committee and backed by Saudi Arabia, said on Twitter that it would not return to Geneva “until it sees progress on the ground.”
In a news conference, the committee’s leader, Riad Hijab, blamed the government for the suspension. “The regime is trying to buy time without doing anything,” Mr. Hijab said. He stopped short of saying the talks had failed, adding that he hoped the world powers would use the pause to lean on Mr. Assad.
Mr. Hijab accused Russia of repeatedly bombing Aleppo, an ancient city on the Turkish border, and accused the Syrian government of using cluster bombs and barrels that explode in midair and hit civilians indiscriminately.
In a news conference across town, Bashar al-Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations and the government’s chief negotiator, said the talks had not gone further because of “preconditions” demanded by his rivals.
The United Nations has said government sieges are responsible for denying the delivery of food and medicine to 187,000 people, while the rebels are besieging 12,000 in government-held towns. Much of the attention has focused on rebel-held Madaya, where the United Nations has documented starvation deaths.
On Wednesday, the militant group Hezbollah, which backs Mr. Assad, announced that government forces had cleared a rebel line that had laid siege for three years to two government-held towns: Zahra and Nubol.
A resident of Nubol, who gave his name only as Youssef, said residents were running low on flour and fuel and looking forward to the army’s advance on the town. “We were living under an unjust siege,” he said by telephone.
Nick Cumming-Bruce reported from Geneva, and Somini Sengupta from New York. Hwaida Saad and Anne Barnard contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis from London.
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(via NY Times)