Syria Opp. Group to Boycott Sochi Talks

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria's main opposition negotiating body said Saturday it will boycott a peace conference in Russia next week, saying it would not lead to a genuine peace track that could end the country's seven-year war.

The High Negotiations Committee announced the boycott of the Russia-backed conference in Sochi in a tweet Sunday night after a vote held in Vienna, Austria, where a U.N.-led conference was being held.

The two-day conference ended, as in many previous rounds, with accusations hurled back and forth between the two sides in comments to the press.

"The (Syrian) regime doesn't believe in a political solution and it will not believe in the future ... it only believes in the military option," Syrian opposition leader Naser al-Hariri said from Vienna on Saturday.

Russia has been steering a separate negotiating track in Astana, and now in the Black Sea resort of Sochi where the conference is scheduled to be held on Monday with the participation of some 1,600 representatives of the Syrian government and opposition.

Opposition figures have said Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces, is trying to undermine the U.N.-led talks. However the spokesman for the U.N. secretary general on Saturday said he is confident that the conference in Sochi will be an important contribution to a "revived intra-Syrian talks under the auspices of the U.N. in Geneva," and added that the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura would take part in the conference.

The opposition boycott comes amid the backdrop of escalating violence, particularly in northern Syria, where Turkey has been attacking a Kurdish-controlled enclave for days. Turkish authorities have also threatened the Turkish forces' push into Afrin would stretch further east, to the Syrian Kurdish town of Manbij and until the border with Iraq.

The Turkish offensive has further strained ties between Ankara and Washington, which has supported the Kurdish forces under attack.

On Saturday, Turkey's foreign minister said his country wants to see "concrete" steps from the United States to re-establish trust between the two NATO allies. These steps, Mevlut Cavusoglu said, include severing U.S. ties with the Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, stopping their armament and taking back weapons it has supplied them with, as well as pressing for their withdrawal from Manbij.

The U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster confirmed that they will no longer arm the Syrian Kurdish fighters, the minister said, in a phone call with the Turkish president's spokesman late Friday.

But Cavusoglu criticized the U.S. for sending conflicting messages and said: "The President says something, the Pentagon says something else. There are people, U.S. soldiers, who are interweaved with them ... (YPG) in the field and they say something else."

Meanwhile, a cease-fire deal to halt the fighting over the rebel-held besieged eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus appeared to have crumbled before it even began.

The agreement was reached in Vienna between the Syrian opposition and Russia. Rebels gave the government 24 hours to comply, but opposition sources on Saturday said the government shelling had not ceased.

The eastern Ghouta area has seen more than two months of violent fighting since rebels tried to ease a choking government blockade that has depleted food and medical supplies.

The U.N. reported in November that child malnutrition in eastern Ghouta was at the worst ever recorded throughout the seven years of Syria's civil war. It estimates that there are around 400,000 people trapped under the government's siege.

Conditions have deteriorated precipitously after pro-government forces choked off the last smuggling tunnels leading to the opposition-held suburbs in May.

(KA)