Chief Syria opposition negotiator quits over failed peace talks

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Chief negotiator for the main Syrian opposition umbrella group the High Negotiations Committee, Mohammed Alloush, has resigned

Chief negotiator for the main Syrian opposition umbrella group the High Negotiations Committee, Mohammed Alloush, has resigned (AFP Photo/Fabrice Coffrini)

Beirut (AFP) - Syria's opposition chief negotiator in UN-brokered peace talks has announced his resignation in what analysts said amounted to a warning the Geneva-based process was on its "last legs".

Mohammed Alloush, a member of the Saudi-backed rebel group Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), said on Twitter late Sunday he was resigning over the talks' failure to produce any results on humanitarian and security issues.

"The endless negotiations are harming the fate of the Syrian people," Alloush said.

He blamed the "stubborn" regime for continuing to bomb Syrian cities, but also lambasted the international community for failing to secure an end to sieges, more aid access and prisoner releases.

"I therefore announce my withdrawal from the delegation and my resignation" from the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC).

Syria analyst Charles Lister warned that Alloush's resignation could be the death knell for the peace talks.

"This is Jaish al-Islam's way of signaling that the Geneva process is on its absolute last legs," Lister told AFP by email.

"Armed groups have been threatening to withdraw from the talks for some time now, and Jaish al-Islam's recent move will be seen as a signal for others to consider preparing for the seemingly inevitable death of the process."

The UN-backed talks are aiming to reach a political settlement to Syria's five-year-war, which has left more than 280,000 people dead and driven millions into exile.

A fragile ceasefire between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and non-jihadist rebels brokered by Washington and Moscow was meant to bolster the talks, but repeated violations have left it hanging by a thread.

The last round of talks in Geneva reached a deadlock in April when the HNC suspended its participation over escalating fighting on the ground.

A new round of talks had been expected for the end of May, but UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday that he had no plans to convene another round in the next two or three weeks.

De Mistura's spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said on Monday: "This is an internal matter for the HNC. We look forward to continuing our work with all sides to ensure that the process moves forward."

- Rebel withdrawal 'inevitable'? -

The fate of Assad has been a key stumbling block in the negotiations, with the opposition insisting any peace deal must include his departure while Damascus says his future is non-negotiable.

Diplomats have said there was little chance the opposition would take part in new talks if violence was raging and no aid was reaching civilians.

With little high-level negotiations experience, Alloush was a controversial choice as the HNC's chief negotiator.

Opposition members have also criticised Jaish al-Islam for its alleged involvement in kidnapping prominent rights activists in the town of Douma.

But Lister said the participation of armed groups in the peace process "lent it that much more legitimacy".

He said Alloush's resignation had been "discussed for some time" and may trigger additional defections, including HNC delegation head Asaad al-Zoabi.

Zoabi defected from the Syrian air force in August 2012 and began advising rebel groups in Syria's south from Jordan.

The prominent roles that both Alloush and Zoabi held within the HNC have boosted the body's legitimacy among rebels on the ground, who have previously derided the opposition-in-exile as nothing more than suits in hotels.

"Unless the international community can come up with a substantial improvement in conditions on the ground, the eventual withdrawal of the armed opposition seems all but inevitable now," Lister wrote.

Inside Syria, meanwhile, thousands of civilians have been fleeing a fresh offensive by the Islamic State jihadist group in the north, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday.

The surprise assault on the towns of Marea and Azaz threatens to overrun the last swathe of territory in the east of Aleppo province held by non-jihadist rebels.

Further east, US-led coalition warplanes targeted IS positions north of the jihadist bastion of Raqa, killing 45 IS fighters, the Observatory said.