Syrian Opposition Group Rejects Aleppo Freeze Plan

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A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on February 28, 2015 shows United Nations (UN) special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura (L) meeting with Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (R) in the Syrian capital Damascus. AFP/HO/SANA

Published Monday, March 2, 2015

Syrian rebel forces in Aleppo on Sunday rejected UN envoy Staffan de Mistura's plan for a freeze in fighting in the divided northern city, dealing a blow to his peace efforts.

The announcement came during a meeting attended by the exiled National Coalition chief Khaled Khoja, who on Sunday praised France’s anti-Assad stance.

On the same day another rebel group in Aleppo dissolved itself and joined an Islamist front.

"We refuse to meet with Mr Staffan de Mistura if it is not on the basis of a comprehensive solution to Syria's drama through the exit of (President) Bashar al-Assad and his chief of staff, and the prosecution of war criminals," a newly-formed Aleppo revolutionary commission said.

The political and military grouping was set up Saturday at a meeting in the Turkish border town of Kilis attended by Khoja, other opposition figures and Aleppo civil society representatives.

De Mistura's proposal "falls short of an initiative to resolve the humanitarian crisis of our people targeted by the regime's use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs prohibited by the international community," it said.

The Italian-Swedish diplomat, who has made the Aleppo freeze the centerpiece of his mediation efforts since he was named in July as special envoy to Syria, angered the opposition last month by describing Assad as "part of the solution" to the conflict.

The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), a Syrian insurgent group, had slammed the diplomat as "biased" and said it would not meet with him.

"The Council with all its factions has decided to reject meeting the UN mediator due to his dishonest position towards the revolution of the Syrian people," the RCC statement said.

In a phone interview with Reuters, de Mistura said that he had not been referring to a final solution to the conflict in his statement.

"That is something that only the Syrians, if you had asked me, would have to decide upon. The main point was he is part of the solution in reducing violence," de Mistura said.

Aleppo's opposition forces on Sunday also turned down preferential treatment for their region over other areas of Syria stricken by the four-year conflict.

"Syria and its people are one and indivisible. The blood of our brothers in Daraa (in the south), in Ghouta (near Damascus), in Homs (central) and in other Syrian provinces is no less important than our blood in Aleppo," they said.

However, Khoja said on February 19 that he supported the UN’s "action plan" in Syria.

"We welcome any effort aimed at stopping the bloodshed in Syria and this has been the position of the Syrian coalition since it was established," Khoja said in an interview published on the website of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.

De Mistura on Saturday held talks in Damascus to try to finalize a deal to freeze fighting in the battered second city of Aleppo. He met Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and agreed to send a delegation from his office in the capital to Aleppo on a fact-finding mission, state news agency SANA said, without giving a date.

The envoy "hopes to set in motion as soon as possible his project" to halt fighting in Aleppo for six weeks, said a member of his delegation. He has met government officials and opposition chiefs in recent weeks to promote his plan for a temporary truce in Aleppo in order to move aid into the northern city, as a starting point to be expanded to other regions.

De Mistura said Syria has expressed a willingness to halt all aerial and artillery bombing in the city for six weeks, adding that Damascus would announce the start date of the local ceasefire.

Once Syria's commercial hub, Aleppo has been devastated by fighting that began in mid-2012, and the city is now split between loyalist forces and rebels.

Rebel group dissolves itself, joins Islamist front

On Sunday, one of the main western-backed rebel groups in Aleppo announced that it had dissolved itself and joined a larger Islamist alliance, weeks into a battle which saw it lose ground and men to more powerful al-Qaeda insurgents.

Harakat Hazm was one of the last remnants of non-jihadist opposition to Assad in northern Syria, much of which has been seized by the Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an offshoot of al-Qaeda that controls roughly a third of Syria.

The statement posted online said its fighters would join the Shamiyah Front, an alliance of Islamist brigades in Aleppo, to prevent further bloodshed.

The decision comes after heavy weekend fighting between it and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's official Syria wing. Both Hazm, which was part of the Free Syrian Army collection of non-jihadist rebel groups that the United States classes as "moderate," and Nusra fight the Syrian army.

Hazm received what it described as small amounts of military aid from foreign states opposed to Assad, including US-made anti-tank missiles. But it has lost ground to better armed and financed jihadists.

On Saturday, the Nusra Front drove Hazm out of a strategic northern Regiment 46 base in Aleppo province and killed around 30 of its fighters, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The weakness of the non-jihadist Syrian opposition has complicated diplomatic efforts to end the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests and spiraled into a multi-sided war drawing foreign jihadists, killing about 220,000 and displacing half the population.

In attempt to contain the growing threat of jihadist groups like ISIS, which controls large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, four French parliamentarians met with Assad on February 25, despite a breakdown in diplomatic ties between Paris and Damascus.

The French government, which supports the so-called moderate Syrian opposition and wants Assad to leave power, quickly denied that the lawmakers were there in an official capacity.

National Coalition praises France’s anti-Assad stance

Syria's exiled opposition led by Khoja praised France on Sunday for maintaining its "exemplary" opposition to Assad after the lawmakers’ controversial visit to Damascus.

"The position of France has always been exemplary, and your country has consistently held to the side of the Syrian people against any attempt to rehabilitate the regime in Damascus under false pretenses," Khoja wrote in a letter to the French government.

His letter followed an unofficial trip by French lawmakers to the Syrian capital last week, during which they met with Assad and other senior officials. The trip reignited debate in Europe over whether it was time to rebuild diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime in order to counter the greater threat from jihadist groups such as ISIS.

Khoja, who is due to meet French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Thursday, said such a policy would backfire.

"Those who argue they should cooperate with the Syrian regime to fight terrorism will only find the phenomenon worsening," he wrote in the letter, addressed to Hollande, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

"The National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces warmly welcomes the firm position expressed by France regarding the cause of the Syrian people and its aspiration to form a civil democratic state... This aspiration absolutely requires the departure of the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad," the letter said.

The lawmakers' visit was strongly condemned by Hollande and Valls, who described Assad as a "dictator" and "a butcher."

The National Coalition is the key political representative of Syria's opposition and is officially recognized by much of the international community. It has participated in several rounds of failed peace talks and insists that Assad must step down in any resolution of the country's nearly four-year-old conflict.

Last week, representatives from the Coalition and from the domestic National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC) met in Paris.

The NCCDC, which is also known as the National Coordination Body, is part of the country's small so-called "tolerated" opposition, operating inside Syria under tight restrictions.

The two sides agreed on a joint draft road map for the first time based on UN Security Council resolutions on Syria and the so-called Geneva communique that emerged from peace talks in the Swiss city in 2012, which called for a transitional governing body and an end to the brutal conflict.

In a statement, the National Coalition said the document "specifies that the primary goal of negotiations with the Assad regime is to establish a civil, democratic, pluralistic system that ensures equal rights and duties for all Syrians."

A key sticking point in peace talks has been the future of Assad. The Coalition insists he must step down, while the NCCDC has called for a transitional body without referring specifically to Assad's role.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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