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Executive Summary for February 2nd

We review key developments in Syria, including slow progress in Geneva despite government gains on the ground, de Mistura’s call on International Syria Support Group members to push the warring parties to agree a ceasefire and a growing refugee crisis in Jordan.

Published on Feb. 2, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Talks in Geneva Move Forward Despite Government Gains on the Ground

United Nations special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura announced on Monday the official start of peace negotiations in Geneva aimed at ending the five-year civil war, even as government troops made significant advances near Aleppo.

Government troops and allied militias, backed by Russian airstrikes, launched their biggest offensive north of Aleppo in a year, capturing a good portion of the countryside north of the city and bringing a key rebel supply route within firing range, Reuters reports.

De Mistura said he expected the talks to be “complicated and difficult,” but that Syria’s people deserved to “see something concrete, apart from a long, painful negotiation.”

Although he did not specify the length of the first round of talks, the U.N. envoy said he hoped to the negotiations would “achieve something” by February 11, AFP reports.

Monday’s government offensive north of Aleppo flies in the face of opposition demands for a halt to bombing before talks begin.

The opposition’s negotiating body, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), has said it will not participate in the talks without a halt in government bombardment of civilian areas, the lifting of sieges and the release of prisoners.

“We are here for a few days. Just to be clear, only a few days. If there (is) no progress on the ground, we’re leaving … We are not here for negotiations, we are here to test the regime’s intentions,” HNC official Monzer Makhous told Reuters upon arrival in Geneva.

In an ostensible gesture of goodwill, the Syrian government on Monday agreed “in principle” to allow aid into three besieged towns, including Madaya.

After Monday’s meeting with the U.N. envoy, HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet said the opposition “will strive to join the political process.”

“We came here to discuss with the special envoy U.N. resolution 2254, lifting the sieges and stopping the crimes done by Russian airstrikes in Syria, and I believe we received positive messages,” Meslet said.

U.N. Envoy Calls on Major Powers to Push for Ceasefire in Syria

Staffan de Mistura said on Monday that it is up to the major world powers to push warring parties in Syria to agree to a nationwide ceasefire, Reuters reports.

After announcing the official start of the peace talks in Geneva, the U.N. envoy said his responsibility was only to hold talks on a U.N. resolution regarding elections, governance and a new constitution.

“There was a message … that when the Geneva talks actually start, in parallel there should be the beginning of a serious discussion about ceasefires,” de Mistura told reporters after a meeting with the HNC at U.N. headquarters in Geneva.

But encouraging the implementation of ceasefires, he said, was not in his sphere of responsibility and should be handled immediately by members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG).

“What I am simply saying is reminding the ISSG members of what they actually indicated – that when the actual talks would start, they themselves would start helping in ensuring that there would be a discussion about an overall ceasefire in the Syrian conflict.”

The ISSG includes a broad range of countries like Iran and Russia, who back the Assad government, and the United States, Gulf states and Turkey, who provide military support to rebel groups fighting to overthrow Assad.

The ISSG is set to meet in Germany on February 11.

Jordanians ‘at Boiling Point’ Over Refugees, Says King Abdullah

Days before an international donor conference on Syria, King Abdullah of Jordan said the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees is pushing Jordanians to a “boiling point,” the BBC reports.

King Abdullah said the influx of refugees had strained Jordan’s social services, economy and infrastructure, and that the situation was close to a breaking point.

“The psyche of the Jordanian people, I think it’s gotten to a boiling point,” he said.

“Sooner or later, I think the dam is going to burst and I think this week is going to be very important for Jordanians to see, is there going to be help – not only for Syrian refugees, but for their own future as well.”

The U.N. is seeking $7.7 billion to fund its operations in Syria and neighboring countries. The intragovernmental organization is operating on a severely reduced budget in Syria. Only 43 percent of its 2015 request for $2.9 billion was funded.

“For the first time,” King Abdullah said, “we can’t do it any more.”

For decades Jordan has welcomed incoming refugees from Palestine, Iraq and now Syria. Refugees make up nearly 20 percent of the total population, and 25 percent of the state budget is spent on their behalf, according to King Abdullah.

The international donor conference on Thursday, hosted by the U.K., Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the U.N., aims to raise significant new funding in efforts to aid the 13.5 million vulnerable and displaced people inside Syria and the millions who have fled abroad.

In his interview with the BBC, King Abdullah rejected criticism from the international community over Jordan’s reluctance to take in the nearly 16,000 Syrian refugees who are stranded in a remote area along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

The king argued there were so-called Islamic State (ISIS) “elements” among the group and that the 50–100 people who are admitted each day are “going through a strong vetting system.”

Recommended Reads

Top image: Four young Syrian women stand outside a remedial education center in the Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. The remedial classes are intended for students who need help keeping up in school, including those who missed classes due to the civil war in Syria. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

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