US and Russia tussle over Syria deal as regime strikes
The United States and Russia on Friday grappled over plans to halt the fighting in Syria, as resurgent Moscow-backed regime forces tightened the noose around the beleaguered city of Aleppo.
In Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry spent hours in talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, but US officials warned negotiations could not go on forever without a breakthrough.
Washington wants Moscow to help clinch a ceasefire, get humanitarian aid to civilians and — eventually — set the stage for political talks to end a five-year war that has killed nearly 300,000 people.
The two powers back opposite sides in the civil war, with Moscow supporting Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and Washington behind a coalition of rebel groups it regards as moderate.
Senior officials travelling with Kerry said he would not have flown out once again to new face-to-face talks with Lavrov unless he thought there was a chance of progress.
A US official who attended the dialogue described the atmosphere as “crisp and businesslike”, focused on technical details of how the ceasefire would be observed and monitored.
The US delegation broke proceedings to update Washington on progress, before Kerry headed back in, cheerfully waving to reporters and declaring that he and Lavrov were “working away.”
But officials warned there was no guarantee of a final agreement before both men are scheduled to return home later Friday, just four days after the pair met in China and failed to narrow their differences.
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he had heard the deal could initially be for an interim seven to 10-day period in parallel to more talks.
UN envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura, who joined the ministers at their hotel late in the day, said a successful outcome from the talks could provide a major boost towards resolving the conflict.
A successful deal, he said, “would have a major impact on humanitarian access, and in turn would have a positive impact on the way the political process would be relaunched.”
– ‘Back to square one’ –
Washington wants concrete steps from Russia to force Assad to stop bombing Syrian citizens, respect a ceasefire and lift the siege of the northern city of Aleppo.
“We need to see a situation where it’s clear within whatever is being agreed with the Russians that there won’t be a siege of Aleppo,” a senior US official told reporters.
Pro-regime forces have taken back a strategically important district on Aleppo’s southern outskirts, rolling back nearly every gain from a month-long rebel offensive there.
The government advance further sealed off Aleppo’s opposition-held eastern districts, and regime troops backed by the Russian air force have completely encircled opposition-held neighbourhoods.
And in another major blow to the rebels, the military commander of the Army of Conquest, the largest rebel alliance, was killed in an air strike, Islamist sources said Thursday.
The former Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate recently renamed Fateh al-Sham Front, announced “the martyrdom” of Abu Omar Sarakeb, the biggest setback to the group since it formed early last year.
“Rebels are now back to square one, under an even more ruthless siege,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the observatory, told AFP.
In Aleppo, desperate civilians described a hungry battle for survival.
“This siege is much harder than the first one. During the first one, there were at least some products still in the market — now there’s nothing at all,” said one shopper, Omar al-Beik.
“No products, no vegetables, no sugar. Nothing. We came to buy a few things to cook and we couldn’t find a thing,” he told AFP.
– ‘Starving in two weeks’ –
In the nearby Al-Sakhur district, Abu Omar said he was bracing himself for more shortages.
He and his three children are surviving on rice, bulghur wheat and lentils, and had not had bread in three days.
“There’s a risk that we’ll be starving in two weeks,” he said.
The Syrian war began as a pro-democracy revolt in 2011 but morphed into a multi-front conflict after the regime unleashed a crackdown.
It has killed more than 290,000 people and forced more than half the population to flee their homes.