BEIRUT: Syrians have been dying in greater numbers than ever since peace talks began three weeks ago, activists said Wednesday, as negotiations faltered in Geneva.
More than 230 people have been killed every day in Syria since Jan. 22, when international mediators brought President Bashar Assad’s government and its opponents together, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. That is more than in any other three weeks since the war began in 2011.
It is unclear how far the bloodshed is a consequence of the talks, as both sides seek to improve their bargaining positions by gaining territory. On Wednesday, Assad’s army and fighters from Lebanese ally Hezbollah pounded the strategic border town of Yabroud where rebels prepared to resist a ground offensive.
The United Nations says more than 130,000 Syrians have been killed in nearly three years of fighting. Totaling at least 4,959, the three-week death toll compiled by the Observatory included 515 women and children. The group estimated about a third of all the dead were civilians.
“This is the highest average we have had,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman of the Observatory as the group urged a suspension of negotiations at Geneva if there was no immediate cease-fire.
There was little sign of an early breakthrough on the third day of a second round of talks in the Swiss city.
The opposition, which has little sway over rebels fighting on the ground, called for a transitional governing body to oversee a U.N.-monitored cease-fire and expel foreign fighters in a paper that avoided any mention of Assad – whose departure the government delegation has refused to discuss.
The confidential paper, seen by Reuters, lays out a vision of post-conflict Syria with all ethnic groups participating in a transition process aimed at restoring peace and stability.
The transitional authority will seek to halt violence by all armed groups on both sides, including those which “follow political, religious or sectarian ideology,” it said, referring to Sunni and Shiite militants fighting in Syria.
The memorandum was presented to mediator Lakhdar Brahimi and a Syrian government delegation at a joint session at talks in Geneva.
“I think that the opposition has come to the obvious conclusion that the best way to deal with Assad is to avoid mentioning him,” one Middle Eastern diplomat said.
Asked why the document did not go into the fate of Assad, the opposition’s chief negotiator, Hadi al-Bahra, told Reuters: “We can no longer talk about one person as the sole embodiment of Syria. We deliberately presented a legal paper. Anyone who reads it will realize that a political transition will be the foundation for a new democratic future.”
The paper did not draw an immediate official response from the government, although Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad indicated that Damascus would be willing to discuss the opposition proposal to evict foreign fighters – a rare sign of common ground.
However, the government says negotiations must focus first on fighting terrorism and rejected parallel track talks on the opposition’s priority of a transitional government as a “fruitless” idea.
“We are not closed to discussing any issue. But we have to discuss them one by one,” Mekdad said.
“It is necessary to stick with the structure of the document. Completing the first article is necessary to move on to the next articles,” he said. “Any estrangement from this order is a recipe to kill Geneva conference.”
Concern about talks running into the sand prompted Brahimi to bring forward by a day to Thursday a meeting with Russian and U.S. officials in an effort to get Washington, which backs the rebels, and Assad’s ally Russia, to press their proteges.
Continued strains between Russia and other world powers that have so far blocked U.N. action against the Syrian government also showed little sign of easing. Russia said it would veto a U.N. resolution on aid, saying its wording seemed meant to open the way for foreign military action.
And a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Moscow said Barack Obama had “intentionally distorted” the Russian position in remarks the U.S. president had made on Syrian aid Tuesday.
Speaking in Washington Tuesday, Obama told reporters his administration has told “the Russians that they cannot say they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when there are starving civilians.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich dismissed these remarks as “peremptory” and unfair and said Moscow was equally concerned with the grave humanitarian crisis in Syria as Washington was.
Lukashevich praised the deal on a cease-fire allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid and evacuation of civilians from the Syrian city of Homs and highlighted the role Russian diplomats had played in agreeing it.
“In this regard a question arises – why is the Russian position on Syria being intentionally distorted in such a biased way?” he said.
More than 200 civilians were evacuated Wednesday from besieged rebel-held districts in the heart of Syria’s third largest city Homs Wednesday, bringing the total number of people given safe passage out of the war-ravaged districts to more than 1,400 since Friday. Aid workers also distributed 4,700 kilograms of flour and 190 food parcels in the besieged districts Wednesday, according to the Syrian Red Crescent’s Khaled Erksoussi.
Russia is a longtime arms supplier to Assad and the most prominent international backer of Damascus. Washington and the West accuse Russia of shielding Assad.