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Deadly Syria attack shakes UN-backed peace talks in Geneva

Syrian peace talks have been rattled by a deadly attack in Homs, with warring sides exchanging accusations. Negotiations in Geneva are still hung up on the format of the talks.

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Geneva: Syrian peace talks stumble along

An insurgent attack in the central Syria city of Homs on Saturday strained efforts to get peace talks in Geneva off the ground, with the UN mediator warning of "spoilers" trying to derail negotiations.

Five gunmen stormed two Syrian government security offices in Homs before detonating suicide bombs, killing dozens of soldiers including General Hassan Daabul, a senior officer of the Military Intelligence Services.

UN mediator Staffan de Mistura called on the negotiating parties not to be sidetracked.

"Spoilers were always expected, and should continue to be expected, to try to influence the proceedings of the talks. It is in the interest of all parties who are against terrorism and are committed to a political process in Syria not to allow these attempts to succeed," de Mistura said in a statement.

Schweiz Genf Staffan de Mistura (Reuters/P. Albouy)

Staffan de Mistura

Broken alliances

Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist rebel alliance against the peace talks, claimed credit for the Homs attack. The group was formed earlier this year out of several jihadist factions, including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known the Nusra Front, before it broke a formal alliance with al-Qaeda last year.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which like the so-called "Islamic State" is excluded from the peace talks in Geneva, had previously allied with several rebel factions, including the powerful ultra-conservative Ahrar al-Sham.

But relations between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and its former allies have unraveled since opposition groups joined peace negotiations with the government, first in Russian and Turkish-backed talks in Kazakhstan earlier this year, and then in Geneva. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and rebel factions participating in the talks have frequently clashed recently, while Russia and US airstrikes have increasingly targeted the group.

Yet more peace talks

De Mistura has cautioned against an immediate breakthrough in a new round of UN-backed peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition representatives, the first in nearly 10 months. 

Previous rounds stuttered as fragile ceasefires devolved into renewed bouts of fighting between the warring sides. A Russian and Turkish-orchestrated ceasefire meant to support the latest round of talks has frequently been broken by both sides.

Three-days into the latest round of talks, the UN mediator has met with warring sides separately in order to address only the format of negotiations to end six years of conflict.

"In reality, nothing is happening," a senior Western diplomat told Reuters. "The paper handed out yesterday by de Mistura is procedural. It is not the future of Syria."

Trading accusations

After meeting with de Mistura on Saturday, the Syrian government's lead negotiator, Bashar al-Ja'afari, said the opposition must condemn the latest attacks or face the wrath of government forces.

 "If anyone refuses to condemn this terrorist attack, then he is an accomplice of terrorism, and we will deal with them accordingly," said Ja'afari, who on Thursday for the first time sat face-to-face with the opposition delegation at an opening ceremony.

He said the government delegation would not leave the talks and would meet with de Mistura again on Tuesday. But he added that some of the opposition in Geneva were "sponsors of terrorism."

After Ja'afari's comments, the opposition delegation condemned Saturday's attack but suggested the government was using it as an excuse to derail talks.

"We condemn all terrorist acts done by all terrorist groups. If the Homs operation was done by any of those, it is clear what I say," lead negotiator Nasr al-Hariri told reporters, adding the government was the main "sponsor of terrorism."

"They just want to remain in power. The regime is trying to block the negotiations," he said, adding that the opposition would not walk away from the talks.

Homs attack

Colonel Fateh Hassoun, a member of the opposition negotiating team in Geneva, suggested that security forces carried out the attack.

"The area where this happened is very secure, which is always monitored. And no security operation can happen there unless it is facilitated through other security forces who have security access and the infiltration in those areas," he said.

Homs has been largely under government control, except for the al-Waer district, since 2014 after a UN brokered deal for rebels to leave. Warplanes bombed the district on Saturday, wounding dozens of people and killing several more, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

Hassoun suggested the regime carried out Saturday's attack as part of a "liquidation" of people wanted by international courts. Among them was the intelligence chief killed, who he accused of playing a role in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005.

Syria's intelligence services are widely believed to have organized the assassination.

cw/jr (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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