US pushes Russia on ‘true’ Syria deal as regime advances
US Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Geneva for crunch talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, with Washington warning talks could not go on forever without a breakthrough.
The two powers back opposite sides in the five-year conflict, with Moscow supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the US behind the rebels.
Senior Kerry officials said he would not have flown out to the high-level face-to-face talks with Lavrov unless he thought there was a chance of progress.
But they warned there was no guarantee of a final agreement within the narrow window available before both men return home later Friday.
The pair met at a hotel on the banks of lake Geneva and made brief remarks to reporters about North Korea’s latest nuclear test before beginning their closed-door talks on Syria.
– ‘Back to square one’ –
Washington wants concrete steps from Russia to force its Syrian ally Assad to stop bombing his own people and to lift the siege 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 major month-long rebel offensive there, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday.
The government advance further seals off Aleppo’s opposition-held eastern districts and regime troop backed by the Russian air force have completely encircled opposition-held neighbourhoods.
And in a further setback for the rebels, the top military commander of the Army of Conquest, the largest Syrian rebel alliance, was killed in an air strike during a meeting of the leaders of the anti-government group, Islamist sources said Thursday.
The former Al-Nusra Front, renamed Fateh al-Sham Front, announced on Twitter “the martyrdom” of commander Abu Omar Sarakeb.
“Rebels are now back to square one, under an even more ruthless siege,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the observatory, told AFP.
Shops in the east of Aleppo have been struggling since Sunday to secure goods and prices are skyrocketing.
“The price of a kilo of meat rose from 3,000 pounds to 6,000 (from $6 to $12),” complained father-of-three Ahmad in the strike-hit district of Bustan al-Qasr.
– ‘Reducing violence’ –
Ahead of the Geneva talks, the US pressed Russia for a “true cessation of hostilities” against a backdrop of continued military turmoil but warned that its patience is running thin.
US Defence Secretary Ash Carter told BBC radio on Thursday there was “quite a long way to go” before a final peace deal could be struck.
He called for “a true cessation of hostilities — not what you’ve seen, which is a partial cessation of hostilities,” adding: “Our patience is not unlimited.”
The Geneva talks “will focus on reducing violence, expanding humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people, and moving toward a political solution needed to end the civil war,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
Adding to the flurry of diplomatic efforts, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin also agreed to intensify efforts for a ceasefire “as soon as possible” in Aleppo, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported.
Lavrov has suggested that problems in another part of the world — namely, US sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis — may be hampering efforts between the former Cold War rivals to resolve “regional conflicts,” a reference to the Syrian war.
And Carter noted: “We have our differences, serious differences, with Russia elsewhere, especially here in Europe with Ukraine.”
– IS chaos –
While diplomats wrangled, fighting in the complex war continued to claim lives, with Turkish shelling over the border into Syria killing six Kurdish fighters aligned with US forces on Thursday.
Syrian rebels supported by Turkish and coalition air strikes pushed further west into areas held by Islamic State (IS) group militants in northern Syria.
The Syrian war — which began as a pro-democracy revolt in 2011 but morphed into a multi-front conflict after the regime unleashed a crackdown — has killed more than 290,000 people and forced more than half the population to flee their homes.
IS has used the chaos to spread throughout the country and into Iraq.
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