Syrian peace talks that opened less than a week ago after months of diplomatic maneuvering seemed on the verge of collapse Wednesday, as the chief United Nations mediator declared a "pause" and each side blamed the other for the setback.
The U.N. envoy, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters in a surprise announcement in Geneva that he was calling a "temporary pause" in the talks, which he said would be scheduled to resume Feb. 25.
"It is not the end and it is not the failure of the talks," De Mistura told reporters.
Whether the talks would actually resume in three weeks remained unclear amid recriminatory salvos from rival sides in the Syrian conflict and their foreign backers.
The talks are considered the most robust diplomatic effort to date to end the Syrian conflict, now approaching its fifth year.
U.S. officials, who strongly supported the talks, put part of the blame on Russian airstrikes backing a Syrian government offensive making significant advances in the northern province of Aleppo, which has long been split between opposition and loyalist forces.
"It is difficult in the extreme to see how strikes against civilian targets contribute in any way to the peace process now being explored," John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington. "These attacks run counter not only to the desires of the Syrian people, who want to see this political process succeed, but also to the stated intentions of the Russians themselves," who joined with U.S. officials to help craft the peace-talk process.
Moscow says its air power in Syria targets "terrorists" fighting to overthrow the Syrian government and not civilians.
The Russian airstrikes, which began Sept. 30, have been a major boost for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the run-up to the Geneva talks. Russian air power has helped turn the tide of the war on several battlefronts, including the Aleppo area, leaving little incentive for Damascus to yield concessions demanded by the opposition. Russia says it has no intention of letting up.
"I see no reason to stop these airstrikes," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in a visit to the Persian Gulf state of Oman.
The top Russian diplomat also took a verbal swipe at the main Syrian opposition bloc, the High Negotiations Committee, saying some members "are too spoiled by their sponsors," apparent references to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have backed armed insurgents seeking to topple Assad.
After the postponement in talks was announced, Riyad Hijab, head of the opposition committee in Geneva, issued what amounted to an ultimatum, saying his group would not return absent some concessions from Damascus. The opposition bloc has demanded that the government and its Russian allies halt bombardment and that Damascus end sieges of rebel-held areas and release some prisoners.
"We will not return here unless we see something on the ground," Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister who defected to the opposition, told reporters in Geneva, speaking only hours after arriving in the Swiss city.
The chief government negotiator, Bashar Jaafari, blamed the breakdown on the opposition, accusing the antigovernment bloc of a "childish" attempt to subvert the talks by demanding preconditions before negotiations even began.
The suspension of talks was a significant setback for a process that began less than a week ago and was backed by major powers on both sides of the conflict, including the United States and Russia.
The various outside powers supporting the Geneva talks, known as the International Syria Support Group, are scheduled to meet Feb. 11 to discuss the fate of the negotiations.
In his comments, the U.N.'s De Mistura expressed frustration that the Syrian people had not yet seen concrete humanitarian results from the talks, such as lifting of sieges and a reduction of bombardment — steps that the opposition has demanded before formal negotiations begin. He had been pressing for such steps.
"The talks would not be meaningful unless they were also accompanied by immediate tangible benefits for the Syrian people," De Mistura said, adding that he had repeatedly made that point to the United Nations and countries backing the talks.
The veteran diplomat, speaking under umbrellas in the rain outside a lakefront hotel in the Swiss city, emphasized that both sides — the government and opposition representatives — were committed to starting the peace process envisioned in the agenda of the Geneva talks. Supporters of the talks hope they will result in a cease-fire in the Syrian conflict, political reforms, a new constitution and U.N.-backed elections.
Although experts said that achieving such goals was a long way off in war-ravaged and deeply divided Syria, the talks were widely viewed as a potentially positive development in a conflict that has left more than 200,000 people dead, destroyed towns and cities, and sent refugees streaming throughout the region and into Europe.
"Both sides insisted on the fact they are interested in having the political process started," De Mistura said.
The decision to postpone came after days of uncertainly about the talks, which formally opened Friday, though the major opposition delegation did not arrive until Monday. Ambiguity has plagued the process.
De Mistura has held meetings with both sides, but the government and opposition delegations say no substantial talks have occurred, only preliminary discussions.
The High Negotiations Committee, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the talks if the Syrian government does not halt sieges and bombardment of rebel-held areas and release prisoners. Damascus said such questions should be dealt with as part of the negotiations and refused to consider preconditions.
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, were making sweeping gains.
On Wednesday, the Syrian government said its forces had broken opposition sieges of a pair of northern towns, Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo province, after more than two years. The two towns, with majority Shiite Muslim populations, are pro-government bastions and had been encircled by Sunni Islamist rebels, including Al Qaeda-linked forces. The government said it has also succeeded in blocking key rebel supply routes from neighboring Turkey.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Paris contributed to this report.