Some opposition leaders have withdrawn from peace talks in Geneva after airstrikes in Syria killed 44 people. The deadliest violence since a ceasefire started in February could torpedo the stalling talks.
Members of the main opposition High Negotiations Committee, HNC (L to R): Syrian Chairman of the National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change Hassan Abdel Azim, member of the Syrian National Coalition and the National Coordination Commission Safwan Akkash, HNC head Riad Hijab, HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet, and HCN delegation head Asaad al-Zoabi at a meeting of the HNC delegation on the sidelines of Syrian peace talks on April 18, 2016, in Geneva
This week's negotiations between UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, a regime delegation and opposition delegates in Geneva were meant to focus on Syria's political future, as the UN pushes a plan involving a transitional authority, a new constitution and eventual elections.
But the fate of President Bashar al-Assad has been the key sticking point, with the opposition insisting he must go and the regime refusing to countenance any discussion of this.
The partial truce brokered by the US and Russia in February had led to a dramatic drop in violence, but a recent surge in fighting, especially around the country's second-largest city, Aleppo, has renewed fears of a total collapse of the peace talks.
A suspected regime bombing raid hit a market in the city of Maaret al-Numan, killing at least 37 civilians Tuesday, while another strike on a fish market in the nearby town of Kafranbel killed seven civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group.
Both strikes were in Idlib province, which is under the control of Al-Qaeda's Syrian offshoot Al-Nusra Front, a group that is excluded from the ceasefire.
Talks falling apart?
"Our decision to postpone participation in the Geneva talks was taken to highlight the cynicism of the regime in pretending to negotiate while escalating the violence," said Salem al-Meslet, a spokesman for the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC).
Meslet added that the raid had been "Assad's response" to the HNC's decision to suspend its formal participation in negotiations. The HNC has accused the regime of violating the ceasefire more than 2,000 times.
HNC coordinator Riyad Hijab said Tuesday that other delegates were also beginning to leave Geneva. "I will be traveling today along with some of my colleagues from the HNC. Some people left yesterday and today, and they will keep leaving gradually until Friday," he said.
UN mediator Staffan de Mistura (R) arrives for a meeting with the delegation of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) during Syria Peace talks at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on April 13
"It is not suitable, neither morally nor on the humanitarian side, to be part of negotiations when Syrians are dying daily from sieges, hunger, bombings, poisonous gases and barrel bombs."
The UN has insisted the talks have not collapsed. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said they would continue through the week. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted the talks were "not frozen."
The blame game
The airstrikes in rebel territory were likely carried out by Syrian government forces, the US State Department said Tuesday.
"The majority of the violations have been by the regime, and we have reason to believe at this point that that was the case with this particular bombing," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
"We still believe the cessation is still in place, that it is still largely holding and it is important to keep it in place," Kirby said, adding that violence had increased in recent days but was still below levels seen before the US-Russian "cessation of hostilities" plan was agreed in February.
Lavrov, meanwhile, said some "players" were trying to derail the peace talks.
"There are some players - on the outside - who cherish the dream of overthrowing the (Syrian) regime by force, try everything possible, including derailing the Geneva talks," TASS cited Lavrov as saying. "I believe that France, and the United States, categorically do not agree with such attempts," Lavrov said.
Speaking in Moscow, Lavrov said: "No one can win the war. All experts recognize this. There are some external players who dream about deposing the regime by force and try to do everything including disrupting the talks in Geneva."
The regime's lead negotiator reiterated Tuesday that Assad's fate remained off-limits, but said Damascus was prepared to discuss the creation of a new unity government. "A broader unity government is the only topic of discussion here," said Bashar al-Jafaari, Syria's ambassador to the UN.
Syrians inspect the damage at the site of a double car bomb attack in the Al-Zahraa neighborhood of the central Syrian city of Homs in February
IS gains ground
Islamic State militants reportedly seized Syrian government-controlled territory in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zor Tuesday, taking complete control of the city's industrial district after clashes with the Syrian government and allied forces, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The militant group captured nearly all of Deir al-Zor province, which borders Iraq, after seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014. The Syrian government, however, still controls an air base and part of the city of Deir al-Zor, which is besieged by Islamic State fighters.