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Syria’s warring parties return to Geneva to talk peace, but hopes are low

Still looking far from ready to compromise, representatives from Syria's government and opposition arrived here Sunday ahead of another round of U.N.-backed negotiations to end their catastrophic civil war.

The talks that are scheduled to begin Monday come barely more than a month after a previous round of negotiations here in Geneva collapsed because of fighting that continued to rage back in Syria. But even as expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough remain low, glimmers of hope have emerged because of a drop in violence from a partial truce that came into effect more than two weeks ago.

With government and rebel forces verging on exhaustion after more than four years of civil war, their rival great power sponsors — Russia and the United States — appear to have taken greater interest in forging a diplomatic solution. Moscow backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Washington supports his opposition, but they nevertheless brokered the shaky cease-fire that took hold on Feb. 27 and have cajoled their allies into returning to Geneva.

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“This truce was negotiated between Russia and the U.S., not between the various Syrian actors,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies. “Its success demonstrates how exhausted all sides are.”

But while Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that violence has been reduced by 80 to 90 percent under the cease-fire, U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned that most of the violations have been perpetrated by Syrian government forces and their Iranian and Hezbollah allies on the ground. Militiamen from Iran and the Lebanese militant group have participated in pro-government ground attacks that have been backed by airstrikes from Russia, which intervened militarily in the conflict in late September. Moscow's support has helped Assad regain momentum in a war that has killed more than 250,000 people, uprooted millions and empowered the Islamic State and other extremists.

Frustration over Russia’s inability or unwillingness to rein in Assad’s forces led Kerry on Sunday to publicly remind Russia and Iran that they “accepted responsibility for the forces that they control or influence. . . . So President Putin, who is invested in supporting Assad . . . should be somewhat concerned.”

“This is a moment of truth,” Kerry said during a visit to Paris, “a moment where all of us have agreed to be responsible.”

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Although Washington and Moscow “agreed not to litigate cease-fire violations publicly,” he said, “it’s important now for those who support President Assad to make sure that he is living up to this agreement. And therefore, as a result, that they are living up to this agreement, too.”

Statements on Saturday by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem added to U.S. irritation. Moualem confirmed the government’s participation in the talks, but said any opposition attempt to discuss Assad’s future was a “red line” for Damascus. “The government delegation will reject any attempt to put this on the agenda,” he said at a news conference in the Syrian capital.

“We will not talk to anyone who talks about the position of the presidency. . . . I advise them that if this is their thinking, they shouldn’t come to the talks,” he said. The opposition, Moualem said, is operating under “delusions that they will take power in Geneva that they failed to take in battle.”

While the international agreement under which the negotiations are being held does not specifically mention Assad, it outlines the establishment of a transitional government “with full executive powers” to take control of Syria while a new constitution is being written and preparations are being made for elections. The opposition has repeatedly said its interpretation of that agreement is that there is no place for Assad in the transition.

The Obama administration, while continuing to say that peace is impossible as long as Assad remains in office, has avoided saying that the talks should be specifically about his future. But Kerry seemed Sunday to move closer to the opposition position, saying that “Assad sent his foreign minister out . . . to try and act as a spoiler, to take off the table something that President Putin and Iran had committed to” in signing the agreement.

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Kerry said that he was in contact with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and that U.S. and Russian task force representatives were meeting this weekend in both Geneva and Amman, where the United States operates a center to monitor cease-fire violations.

Russia has significantly decreased its airstrikes against opposition fighters and civilians in recent weeks, according to administration officials, and has increased its strikes against the Islamic State. Opposition groups that signed up for the cease-fire have largely complied with it.

But Syrian government forces, in addition to continued use of air-dropped barrel bombs, have conducted ground operations against opposition-held areas around Damascus and the Mediterranean province of Latakia in an apparent effort to retake ground.

While the government has lifted sieges to allow humanitarian access in some areas, Kerry confirmed reports that Syrian forces have removed medical supplies from the relief convoys operated by the United Nations and non-governmental aid organizations.

By continuing military operations on the ground, administration officials said, Assad may also be trying to goad opposition forces into violating the truce. Two of the largest armed groups — Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham — have come under attack near the cities of Homs and Hama. The two Islamist organizations have so far been observing the cease-fire, but have kept the opposition negotiating team at arm’s length.

The talks beginning Monday are expected to last for 10 days, during which the United Nations expects no face-to-face contact between the government and opposition delegations. The plan is then to adjourn them for further consultations on all sides before resuming around April 5.

DeYoung reported from Washington.