- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2016

The Obama administration Monday rushed to shore up a faltering cease-fire in Syria, even as the very opposition rebel forces Washington backs in the conflict announced plans for more attacks in response to what it said was a wave of truce violations by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syria’s Western-backed political opposition also announced a “pause” in precarious U.N. peace talks that the U.S. and Russia, which backs Mr. Assad, hoped would get off the ground in Geneva this week.

In a letter to its fighters in the field Monday, the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee said a surge in cease-fire violations and advances by the Assad regime’s military meant the truce was “effectively over” and that the peace process had been indefinitely postponed.

Within hours, reports emerged of rebel assaults in Syria’s Latakia province, an Assad regime stronghold on the Mediterranean, and a rebel advance on the city of Hama — all while the Syrian military continued to pound rebel-held territory in several key areas of the country.

The surge in violence sent concerns soaring of another humanitarian crisis in Syria, where hundreds of thousands have already died in the 6-year-old civil war.

The U.S. and Russia brokered the cease-fire, which went into effect Feb. 27. The pause in fighting allowed desperately needed food and medical aid to reach besieged civilian areas.

The aim of the truce, which the Obama administration officially called a “cessation of hostilities,” was to give the government and rebels room to negotiate a deal and concentrate the fighting on the Islamic State and other jihadi groups operating in the country.

But the cease-fire has been shaky from the start. With its fate hanging in the balance Monday, administration officials said President Obama had engaged in a “rather intense” telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the status of the truce.

“President Obama stressed the importance of pressing the Syrian regime to halt its offensive attacks against the opposition,” the White House said in a statement, adding that “the two leaders committed to intensify their efforts to shore up the [cease-fire] and affirmed the need to end attacks by all parties and ensure humanitarian access to all besieged areas.”

Administration officials also sought to downplay the uptick in violence.

State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that “nobody’s disputing that there are violations [but] the violence is still significantly reduced” from what was occurring prior to when the cessation of hostilities went into effect.

More than 250,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war, which has been waged on multiple fronts and spawned millions of refugees.

While he acknowledged that the High Negotiations Committee had asked for a “pause” in the talks, Mr. Kirby expressed hope that the process could still go forward.

“We knew it was going to be hard,” he said.

The opposition claims the Syrian military has breached the agreement more than 2,000 times over the past seven weeks.

Exploiting the lull

The Assad regime, backed by Russian airpower, has exploited the cease-fire to expand its control over key areas of the country — particularly around the one-time opposition stronghold of Aleppo.

In Geneva on Monday, U.N. Syrian Envoy Staffan de Mistura also sought to counter the image of a negotiation in trouble.

He noted that rebel representatives agreed to stay in the Swiss city through Friday and that a U.N. team would continue “technical” discussions with them in hopes of firming up a blueprint for a political transition in Syria.

Obama administration officials and Mr. de Mistura have for months said a “political transition” — as called for under a U.N. Security Council resolution — is “the mother of all issues” in the peace process.

But the U.N. envoy acknowledged a long-standing “gap” between the two sides: The High Negotiations Committee wants no role for Mr. Assad in any transitional government, and Mr. Assad’s envoys to the peace talks have proposed a “broad-based government.”

The committee’s chief negotiator, Mohammed Alloush, said the fragile cease-fire that started in late February “has effectively been ended by the regime.”

He said government forces carried out 70 air raids Sunday.

Mr. Alloush also said the Russian government has continued to supply Syrian soldiers with weaponry, while Iran — the Assad regime’s other main backer in the war — has sent in two new fighting groups to help reinforce the Syrian military.

“All this intervention gives a clear indication that the solution in Syria, with the presence of this regime, has become shut — or we have hit a wall,” Mr. Alloush told The Associated Press on Monday.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Khaled al-Nasser, a member of the opposition group the Syrian National Coalition who is in close contact with the High Negotiations Committee, said “there is no intention to boycott the talks. We will not be responsible for the collapse of the negotiations. The regime will be.”

Opposition fighters said they were carrying out their offensives in response to Syrian military attacks against refugee camps and residential areas.

In addition to the rebel advances in Latakia and around Hama, different rebel factions shared videos of their fighters lobbing rockets at government positions in the Jabal al-Akrad area, close to the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that the rebels had seized control of at least two areas and said al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, was also taking part in the fighting. Neither the Nusra Front nor the Islamic State group was included in the cease-fire.

Even before Monday’s developments, some analysts were warning about the dangerous associated with a cease-fire meltdown.

“The situation now risks a rapid unraveling and a spiral of renewed violence from which it could take years to find a new deal-making track,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Both sides have partly used the cease-fire to regroup and resupply and with U.S. officials touting a possible military ‘Plan B’ if the cease-fire collapses, Syria could be set for a new round of devastating escalation,” Mr. Barnes-Dacey wrote in an analysis that the council published Friday.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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