Syria rebel group slams Geneva talks, opposition body

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Syrian rebel group on Saturday said United Nations-led peace talks had so far been extremely negative and criticised opposition negotiators as divorced from a deteriorating military situation on the ground. The statement from Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist group and one of the biggest rebel factions involved in the conflict, indicates the pressure facing the opposition High Negotiations Committee as it takes part in a second round of indirect talks with the government in Geneva. The talks appear to be making no progress toward ending the five-year-long war that has killed more than 250,000 people, while a military escalation has stretched to breaking point a truce agreement brokered by the United States and Russia. "There is a clear division between the work of the (HNC) and the reality on the ground, for while Russia realises field gains for the benefit of the regime, giving it political momentum, and while the regime and Iran breach the truce ... we see insistence from the (HNC) on pursuing the negotiations," it said. Russia and Iran have both provided military support to President Bashar al-Assad, with Moscow deploying its air force and Iran sending members of its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps and, more recently, its regular army to support Damascus. The HNC was formed in December at a Riyadh meeting of the political and armed opposition to Assad. It includes rebel groups including Jaysh al-Islam and a number of Free Syrian Army rebel factions deemed moderate by the West, some of which have received military support from Assad's foreign enemies. Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from the Riyadh meeting, citing reasons including what it described as the sidelining of "revolutionary groups". Further distancing itself from the political process, Ahrar al-Sham said in its statement on Saturday that it had not taken part in any of the Geneva talks. It also said there was "a gulf" between the HNC and "the revolutionary street with all its military and civilian elements", calling its performance "weak and stumbling". The HNC has itself expressed deep misgivings about the outlook for peace talks which it says must be focused on a political transition. The Syrian government has ruled out any discussion of the presidency. Ahrar al-Sham said the Syrian government was meanwhile still "working for a purely military solution". Ahrar al-Sham is an ultra-orthodox Salafist group and has fought as part of a military alliance including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which was not part of the cessation of hostilities agreement brokered in February. Ahrar al-Sham, whose late leader had fought alongside Osama bin Laden, last year denied sharing al Qaeda's ideology or having organisational ties to the group. The Ahrar statement also noted that important opposition conditions for the start of the political process had not been realised, including an end to government blockades of opposition-held territory and a release of detainees. (Additional reporting by Ali Abdellatti in Cairo, writing by Tom Perry, editing by G Crosse)