The Syrian rebel delegation is not yet ready to attend a new round of peace talks due to start on Tuesday in the Kazakh capital Astana, a senior member of the delegation said on Monday while others cast doubt on their participation.
Colonel Ahmad Othman, who heads the Turkish-backed Sultan Murad rebel brigade, said it was awaiting a Russian response to a letter that demands Moscow acts as a guarantor and ends violations of a ceasefire brokered last December by Russia and Turkey.
“Nothing has been implemented so far,” said Othman, complaining of Russian strikes on civilians and assaults by the Syrian army in rebel-held areas.
Syrian rebel groups called on Saturday for the postponement of the Russian-backed peace talks in Kazakhstan and said further meetings would depend on whether the Syrian government and its allies adhered to a newly declared March 7-20 ceasefire.
Russia backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the conflict, and has launched a diplomatic peace initiative after its air force helped the Syrian government defeat rebels in Aleppo in December – Assad’s biggest victory of the war.
The rebels said the government and its Iranian-backed militia allies were continuing to bombard opposition-held areas near Damascus, Homs, Deraa and Idlib, and preparing to storm two districts on the outskirts of the Syrian capital.
“Moscow has not lived up to its commitments. The main demand is stopping the bombardment and displacement of people,” Othman added.
Rebels said an evacuation deal reached on Monday that forces rebel fighters to leave the opposition-held besieged Homs district of al-Waer dealt a blow to Russia’s attempts to portray itself as a credible guarantor of the ceasefire deal.
The evacuation deal was seen as a surrender forced upon rebels after relentless bombing by Syrian jets of the teeming neighbourhood with Moscow’s seal of approval.
“It seems Russia invites us to Astana and then imposes forcible displacement of the people of al-Waer … Moscow has not kept its promises,” said Mohammad Alloush, the head of the armed factions’ delegations participating in the past two Astana rounds.
Separately, Salem al Muslet, a spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, the mainstream opposition body, said Russia’s unwillingness to put pressure on the Syrian government and its allies was behind the hesitation to come to Astana.
He said the factions were so far resisting pressure to go. “There is intense pressure on the factions but they are holding on to their position which is not different from the situation inside where people are suffering and they cannot override their wishes,” Muslet told Al Hadath TV channel.
“If they go to Astana and the shelling is continuing this would be problem, so if the Russians wanted the success of Astana, the guarantor has to take steps, he added.
“There are just hours left before the conference and something could happen,” he added without elaborating.