GENEVA (AP) — Syria's top opposition leader vowed to fight "even with stones" to depose President Bashar Assad, shifting sharply to a tone of conflict over conciliation as peace talks in Geneva teetered near collapse Tuesday amid a new surge in fighting — including government airstrikes that left dozens dead.
Angry and defiant, Riad Hijab of the Western-backed Syrian High Negotiations Committee thundered home the opposition coalition's decision to walk back — if not entirely away — from U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva. He demanded more Security Council oversight of an increasingly wobbly cease-fire as Assad's troops battled rebel fighters in various parts of the country.
The calculated gamble to jeopardize what diplomats have called the best chance in years to bring a diplomatic end to Syria's five-year war came amid the opposition group's growing frustration over unproductive peace talks and hundreds of government cease-fire violations in recent weeks.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 44 people — mostly civilians — died in government airstrikes on opposition-held towns in northern Idlib province on Tuesday. Government warplanes also bombed areas in the central Homs and Hama provinces, activists said.
Salem Meslet, the High Negotiations Committee spokesman, said the deadly strikes validated the coalition's decision to suspend participation in the Geneva talks. Calling the strikes a "massacre of innocents," Meslet said that "Assad is telling the world he has no interest in diplomacy or peace."
The opposition coalition accuses the government of preparing an assault on the city of Aleppo, ignoring its demands for the release of thousands of detainees, and rejecting or avoiding requests for U.N.-led humanitarian aid shipments in recent weeks. The opposition says those are signs of bad faith by Assad's side and accuses it of stalling for time in the Geneva talks.
"We cannot continue to be in discussions in Geneva when our people are dying of hunger and bombardments," Hijab told a news conference. "We will fight no matter the circumstances. We will fight even with stones, and will not surrender."
"There cannot be a political process that prolongs the life of this regime," he said. "For us, as of yesterday, we are out of the political process."
He demanded deployment of international monitors to inspect adherence to the cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia in late February. While calling the United States a "friend" of the opposition, Hijab also put some blame on the U.S., saying it has responsibilities in upholding human rights that "are being violated on a daily basis in Syria."
"We demand that the United States shoulder its responsibility," he said. "Words are not enough, and humanitarian support is not enough. We need action on the ground."
The opposition coalition's decision to suspend participation in the Geneva talks has strained the finely crafted mediation by the U.N. Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, whose office continued holding discussions with smaller opposition groups. De Mistura has said he would review the state of the talks on Friday.
De Mistura's office declined to comment on Hijab's statement.
Mohammed Alloush, the opposition coalition's main negotiator, said its delegation would only return if Assad's government implemented international agreements and halted airstrikes. In comments to The Associated Press, Alloush said he was leaving Geneva because he didn't want to be part of an "absurd" process that may not reach a viable political solution.
Hijab said he too was leaving, but that a High Negotiations Committee team will remain — even if its members won't go to the U.N. offices that have hosted the talks on-and-off since early February. In the talks, the two sides have met with de Mistura at separate times, but not face-to-face.
Russia, a key backer of Assad, lashed out at the pullback. Russia's ambassador in Geneva, Alexei Borodavkin, told the Russian news agency TASS on Tuesday that the High Negotiations Committee's suspended participation in the talks "is proof that, unfortunately, extremists took control within the delegation."
In a conference call with journalists, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, reaffirmed Moscow's support for Assad and the talks. In a telephone call Monday with U.S. President Barack Obama, Putin stressed support for dialogue and the cease-fire, according to Peskov.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. would continue to push both sides to participate in the talks and called on Russia to use its influence with Assad to force the government to honor the cease-fire agreement.
While the indirect talks were to focus on political transition, the two sides got bogged down on Assad's future. Aided by the Russian air power that entered Syrian skies in late September, the Syrian army and allied militiamen have reversed the tide of the war in recent months, making rapid advances against opposing forces, including the radical Islamic State group, which is not in the peace process.
Hijab accused the government of using the cease-fire to advance on rebel positions and said Assad's biggest allies, Russia and Iran, continued to supply his forces with weapons and fighters. He complained that supplies and ammunition were denied to rebel forces, and said he hoped that the U.S would continue supplying weapons to some rebel groups.
On Tuesday, government troops restored control of most of the villages and hills it lost to rebels a day earlier in their offensive in the government-held coastal region of Latakia, according to the Local Coordination Committee, an activist-operated media forum, and al-Manar TV, which is affiliated with the pro-Assad Lebanese Hezbollah group.
The Local Coordination Committee reported government airstrikes, including barrel bombs, in multiple locations in Homs province. The group said there was intense fighting in Kafer-Laha in central Homs.
Issa reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Katherine Jacobsen in Moscow contributed to this report.