US, Russia meet to discuss elusive Syria ceasefire

19th February 2016, Comments 0 comments

US and Russian officials met Friday in Geneva to discuss an elusive ceasefire in Syria, but on the ground fighting raged on and Turkey intensified its shelling of Kurdish-led forces.

The talks come on the same day that the proposed truce was meant to begin, and are intended to pave the way for a broader meeting on how to implement a cessation of hostilities.

The UN's Syria envoy meanwhile acknowledged that a proposed February 25 date for the resumption of stalled peace talks was no longer "realistically" possible.

And tensions between Moscow and Ankara escalated, with Russia saying it would seek a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the possibility of a Turkish ground operation in Syria.

The US-Russian meeting in Geneva brought together military officials and diplomats, Russia's foreign ministry said.

It is meant to be followed by a broader meeting with participation by UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura, but no time for those discussions has yet been set.

On the ground, Turkey intensified its nearly week-long shelling of positions in Aleppo province, where it has sought to halt the advance of a Kurdish-led alliance against rebel forces.

Turkish fire also hit the Kurdish town of Afrin for the first time, killing two civilians, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

Ankara has been angered by the SDF's capture of key territory in Aleppo province from rebel forces supported by Turkey.

It considers the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) that dominate the SDF to be an affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated accusations that the YPG was behind a Wednesday bombing in Ankara that killed 28 people.

He said he would speak to US President Barack Obama to warn him over US weapons support to the YPG, which has been a key ally for Washington in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Ankara fears the SDF advance in Aleppo province is intended to connect Kurdish-held areas in northern and northeastern Syria, creating an autonomous Kurdish region along much of its southern border.

- Kurdish-led force battles IS -

Further east, SDF forces advanced to within five kilometres (three miles) of the IS stronghold of Al-Shadadi in Hasakeh province, the Observatory said.

The SDF cut two key routes leading from the town to Mosul in neighbouring Iraq and to Raqa, the jihadists' de facto Syrian capital, backed by US-led coalition strikes.

The coalition has backed the Kurdish-led SDF against IS, but Washington has cautioned the alliance against taking "advantage" of the situation in Aleppo, wary of angering its Turkish ally.

The Syrian conflict, which began with anti-government protests in March 2011, has become increasingly complex, drawing in several international players.

Key regime backer Russia launched air strikes in support of Assad's government in September, helping regime forces recapture key territory, including in Aleppo province, where they have virtually surrounded the rebel-held east of Aleppo city.

The Russian intervention has raised tensions with Turkey, which in recent days raised the possibility of sending ground troops into Syria to fight IS.

Moscow said Friday it would convene a UN Security Council meeting Friday "to discuss this issue and to introduce a draft resolution calling for a halt to any actions that would undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria."

- Peace talks resumption delayed -

Earlier, Moscow distanced itself from comments made by Assad, who told AFP last week he planned to retake all of Syria.

Russia's UN envoy said the comments were "not in accord with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is making."

Moscow backs the plan announced by 17 world powers last week for humanitarian access throughout Syria and a ceasefire that was to have begun by Friday.

The plan was intended to pave the way for the resumption next week of peace talks between the opposition and the regime that collapsed earlier this month.

But De Mistura told a Swedish newspaper Friday that he could not "realistically call for new Geneva talks starting on February 25."

"We need 10 days of preparations and invitations. But we will aim to do this soon," the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper quoted him as saying.

He also said he hoped Moscow and Washington could agree a "beginning of a cessation of hostilities (in Syria) between today and mid-next week."

© 2016 AFP

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