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MICENTRAL.COM “brought to you by the Michigan Newspaper Network”  

Feb 4, 2:05 PM EST

Analysis: Pause in Syrian talks shows peace remains elusive



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BEIRUT (AP) -- It was hardly unexpected that the Syrian peace talks in Geneva would break off in recrimination.

But the speed in which it happened - only two days after the U.N. had declared them officially open - was a stark indication of just how unattainable peace in Syria remains.

On Wednesday, few hours after the government said it had broken a siege of two government-held villages in northern Syria and cut off one of the last rebel supply lines to Turkey, the U.N. announced a "temporary pause" in the talks, saying they would resume in three weeks.

The opposition blamed the "criminal regime" of President Bashar Assad and its ally Russia. Assad's government blamed the "amateur" opposition and its Saudi and Turkish backers. U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura blamed the international community for not doing its part.

In the eyes of many observers of the 5-year-old war, the lack of progress in the talks was a reflection of the continued unwillingness by all sides to make any of the concessions needed to advance the peace process.

A look at the talks and what to expect next:

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WHY FAILURE WAS INEVITABLE

Despite a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing a road map for a peace process, the warring sides were still stuck on the same procedural issues and definitions that saw negotiations to end the conflict falter in 2014. The major stakeholders - the United States and Russia - have no mechanism to enforce such a road map.

The peace talks were sold on the promise that they would be accompanied by a major push for a cease-fire, but as the parties convened in Geneva, there seemed to be no follow-up. On the contrary, the Assad government stepped up its offensive in northern Syria, backed by Russian airstrikes that pounded the rebels.

Russia's military involvement, which began Sept. 30, has tilted the balance of power sharply in favor of the Assad government. Robert Ford, a veteran diplomat and former ambassador to Syria, told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee last month that Moscow's intervention has made it "infinitely harder to get the concessions needed from the outside of the table" for any talks to succeed.

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THE REPERCUSSIONS

With the diplomatic track thrown into uncertainty, the violence is likely to worsen. The opposition says it will not return to Geneva until the government halts its bombardment of civilians and lifts blockades that have led to starvation and suffering in rebel-held areas. Assad's backers in Russia and Iran insist that the war on "terror" will continue even if there is eventually a cease-fire.

"The net result of holding the talks is to send a signal to the regime that it can continue with its Russian-supported military campaign without paying a diplomatic price, and it's a signal to the rebels that their interests are pretty marginal to big power diplomacy now," said Richard Gowan, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

He said it also sends a message to the Islamic State group, which has used the war to take over territory in Syria, that the government and the rebels are not going to get their act together and really come after them seriously any time soon.

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A SMOKE SCREEN FOR BATTLE?

The rapid advances made by Assad's troops and allied militiamen in northern Syria during the talks were some of the most significant around the city of Aleppo in years. Troops closed in on the city, Syria's largest, getting nearer to their goal of completely encircling its rebel-held eastern part and cutting it off from supply lines to Turkey. Opposition activists reported more than 500 targets hit by Syrian and Russian planes in one of the most intensive air campaigns since Moscow's intervention began.

"Quite simply, the Geneva talks have been a smoke screen," said an editorial Thursday in Lebanon's Daily Star. That echoed the sentiments of Syrian rebel groups and their backers, and contributed to the general feeling that the talks were a charade.

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THE RUSSIA-TURKEY FACTOR

As tensions continue to rise between Turkey and Russia, what Ankara does next is a wild card determining the direction of the conflict in the coming days and weeks. The rebels supported by Turkey have taken a major beating in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Latakia. Russian airstrikes along the coast have sent thousands of ethnic Turkmen fleeing toward safety in Turkey. On Thursday, the Russian military said it has "reasonable grounds" to suspect that Turkey is making intensive preparations for a military invasion of Syria.

Turkey is determined to clear the Islamic State group from a stretch of territory it holds along the Syrian side of its border. By invading northern Syria, Turkey may be betting on strengthening its rebel proxies in the area and preventing the main Kurdish militia from filling any void created by the IS. But any Turkish incursion into Syria is risky and likely to lead to a clash with Russia.

Saudi Arabia, a main supporter of the rebels, also said Thursday it is ready to send ground troops to Syria to fight IS militants if coalition leaders agree to that during an upcoming meeting in Brussels. Such an eventuality would mark a major escalation of the conflict.

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EFFECT ON SYRIAN DONOR CONFERENCE

The diplomatic setback and intensified military bombardments increased the urgency among world leaders meeting Thursday at a donors' conference in London to help millions of war victims.

Those at the conference pledged more than $10 billion to help the 4.6 million Syrians who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

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EDITOR'S NOTE - Zeina Karam, Associated Press chief of bureau in Beirut, has covered Syria since 1996.

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Associated Press writer Karin Laub contributed to this report.

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