Syrian rebels called on U.S. President Barack Obama to do more to stop Russian bombing raids in support of a military offensive by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad that threatens to scupper new peace talks this week.
World powers are meeting in Germany on Thursday in an attempt to revive peace efforts, but with Moscow backing a government push for all-out military victory, opposition delegates and Western officials see little hope of a breakthrough.
United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura halted the first attempt to negotiate an end to Syria’s war in two years after an unprecedented offensive by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against Western-backed rebels supported by Russian air strikes.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
In an attempt to prevent a collapse of diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s five-year-old civil war, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for a ceasefire and increased humanitarian aid access ahead of a meeting of the so-called International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Munich.
But one U.N. diplomatic source said Russia was “stringing Kerry along” in order to provide diplomatic cover for Moscow’s real goal – to help Assad win on the battlefield instead of compromising at the negotiating table.
“It’s clear to everyone now that Russia really doesn’t want a negotiated solution but for Assad to win,” said the diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A senior adviser to Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, told Reuters in Damascus on Tuesday that there would be no let-up in the army advance, which aimed to recapture the city of Aleppo from rebels and secure Syria’s border with Turkey.
Saudi-backed rebels said they would go to Munich and attend U.N. peace talks later this month but called on Obama to be more forceful with Russia over its bombing.
Spokesman Salim al-Muslat said: “I believe he can really stop these attacks by the Russians on Syrians. If he is willing to save our children it is really the time now to say ‘no’ to these strikes in Syria.”
“I believe he can do it but it is really strange for us that we don’t hear this from him,” Muslat told Reuters.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Mr. Kerry’s brilliant negotiating skills stem from his long encounter with world powers on the Iran nuclear deal. Credit Reuters
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also questioned the commitment of the United States to resolving the war.
“There are the ambiguities including among the actors of the coalition … I’m not going to repeat what I’ve said before about the main pilot of the coalition,” Fabius said. “But we don’t have the feeling that there is a very strong commitment that is there.”
Rebel groups say that while Washington has put pressure on them to attend peace talks, they see less help on the battlefield. Appeals for anti-aircraft missiles to counter the latest offensive are falling on deaf ears.
De Mistura set a target date of Feb. 25 to reconvene talks between the Syrian government and opposition in Geneva.
But in less than two weeks, the offensive by Syrian forces, Hezbollah and Shiite militias directed by Iran – all backed by Russian bombing raids – have reversed opposition gains on the ground and encircled rebels inside Aleppo, a strategic prize now divided between government and opposition control.
This has caused alarm among U.N. and Western officials, who believe the goal of the Russian-Syrian-Iranian campaign is to destroy the opposition’s negotiating power in Geneva, kill them on the ground, and secure the first major military victory since Moscow began bombing opposition forces in Syria in September.
“It’ll be easy to get a ceasefire soon because the opposition will all be dead,” a Western diplomat told Reuters. “That’s a very effective ceasefire.”
The latest fighting around Aleppo has killed about 500 people on all sides, a monitoring group said.
Other Western officials said Kerry overestimated his influence and ability to bring the Russians around. They said he appeared to believe that since he achieved what some saw as unachievable by getting a nuclear deal with Iran he could do the same with Syria.
They noted that the two cases were different. With Iran, Russia wanted a political agreement whereas in Syria it is pushing for a military victory by the Syrian government.
“The Russians are playing cat and mouse with Kerry,” said a senior European diplomat.
While it will not be difficult to get Russia to agree on an increase in aid deliveries, Western officials said, Moscow is clearly not committed to a comprehensive ceasefire that would halt what it seems as military momentum that favors the Syrian army and its Iranian-backed supporters.
“U.S. policy was always based on a series of false assumptions. The main false assumption was that there is no military solution to the Syria crisis,” said Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.
“The Assad regime has no interest in a political solution,” he said. “The Russians have no interest in a political solution. Iran has no interest in a political solution. Hezbollah has no interest in a political solution.”
Russia says its air strikes have been targeting Islamic State, a militant Islamist group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq, and not Western-backed opposition groups. But U.S. and European officials say that is not the case.
Fewer than 30 percent of Russia’s air strikes are targeting Islamic State, a group that a U.S.-led coalition conducts bombing sorties against on a daily basis, Western officials say.
From the beginning, ISSG, which includes the United States and Russia, as well as key regional powers such as rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran and European nations, has been struggling to find common ground within its disparate ranks on ending the Syrian war.
After agreeing in November a road map for a ceasefire, U.N.-brokered talks between the government and opposition, and eventual elections, the ISSG has been unable to move ahead with peace talks. Some officials predict that the talks, like the opposition, could die a slow death in the coming months.
BICKERING BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
A December meeting of the group was largely characterized by closed-door bickering about which groups in Syria should or should not be labeled a terrorist organization, which would bar them from the negotiating table.
Jordan had been assigned the task of drawing up the list and collected proposals from members of the group. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was infuriated when he saw that someone had proposed putting the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, which is actively supporting Assad, on the list of terrorist groups.
“Zarif suggested that Iran might propose including the CIA as well,” a Western diplomat said. After that, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who were chairing the meeting, briefly discussed the idea of having the CIA included.
Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have not hidden their view that there is little holding international negotiations when the Russian air strikes and Syrian government advance continue.
On the other side, Iran has made clear that it believes the Saudis – not Iran, Russia or Assad – are the major obstacle to peace. “There are some countries that it seems don’t want peace to be restored in Syria,” a senior official involved in the Syria talks said.
He also predicted there would be no breakthrough in Munich.
The Kremlin rejects claims that it has abandoned diplomacy in pursuit of a military solution, saying it would continue to providing military aid to Assad to fight “terrorist groups” and accusing Syria’s opposition of walking away from the talks.
(Additional reporting Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Jonathan Landay in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Giles Elgood)
From Zero Hedge
An Exasperated John Kerry Throws In Towel On Syria: “What Do You Want Me To Do, Go To War With The Russians?!”
Can you spot what’s wrong with that quote, from a Reuters piece out today? Here’s the problem: “could soon fall” implies that Aleppo is on the verge of succumbing to enemy forces. It’s not. It’s already in enemy hands and has been for quite some time. What Reuters should have said is this: “…could soon be liberated.”
While we’ll be the first to admit that Bashar al-Assad isn’t exactly the most benevolent leader in the history of statecraft, you can bet most Syrians wish this war had never started and if you were to ask those stranded in Aleppo what their quality of life is like now, versus what it was like in 2009, we’re fairly certain you’ll discover that residents aren’t particularly enamored with life under the mishmash of rebels that now control the city.
In any event, Russia and Iran have encircled Aleppo and once it “falls” (to quote Reuters) that’s pretty much it for the opposition. Or at least for the “moderate” opposition. And the Saudis and Turks know it.
So does John Kerry, who is desperate to restart stalled peace negotiations in Geneva. The problem for the US and its regional allies is simple: if Russia and Iran wipe out the opposition on the battlefield, there’s no need for peace talks. The Assad government will have been restored and that will be that. ISIS will still be operating in the east, but that’s a problem Moscow and Tehran will solve in short order once the country’s major urban centers are secured.
As we noted on Saturday, Riyadh and Ankara are extremely concerned that the five-year-old effort to oust Assad is about to collapse and indeed, the ground troop trial balloons have already been floated both in Saudi Arabia and in Turkey. For their part, the Russians and the Iranians have indicated their willingness to discuss a ceasefire but according to John Kerry himself, the opposition is now unwilling to come to the table.
“Don’t blame me – go and blame your opposition,’” an exasperated Kerry told aid workers on the sidelines of the Syria donor conference in London this week.
America’s top diplomat also said that the country should expect another three months of bombing that would “decimate” the opposition, according to Middle East Eye who also says that Kerry left the aid workers with “the distinct impression” that the US is abandoning efforts to support rebel fighters.
In other words, Washington has come to terms with the fact that there’s only one way out of this now. It’s either go to war with Russia and Iran or admit that this particular effort to bring about regime change in the Mid-East simply isn’t salvageable.
“He said that basically, it was the opposition that didn’t want to negotiate and didn’t want a ceasefire, and they walked away,” a second aid worker told MEE.
“‘What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?’” the aid worker said Kerry told her.
MEE also says the US has completely abandoned the idea that Assad should step down. Now, apparently, Washington just wants Assad to stop using barrel bombs so the US can “sell the story to the public.” “A third source who claims to have served as a liaison between the Syrian and American governments over the past six months said Kerry had passed the message on to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in October that the US did not want him to be removed,” MEE says. “The source claimed that Kerry said if Assad stopped the barrel bombs, Kerry could ‘sell the story’ to the public, the source said.”
Of course Kerry won’t be able to “sell” that story to the Saudis and the Turks, or to Qatar all of whom are now weighing their oppositions as the US throws in the towel. “Kerry’s mixed messages after the collapse of the Geneva process have put more pressure on Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” MEE concludes. “Both feel extreme unease at the potential collapse of the opposition US-recognised Free Syrian Army.”
And so, as we said earlier this week, it’s do or die time for Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha. Either this proxy war morphs into a real world war in the next two weeks, or Aleppo “falls” to Assad marking a truly humiliating defeat for US foreign policy and, more importantly, for the Saudis’ goal of establishing Sunni hegemony in the Arabian Peninsula.
The only other option is for John Kerry to face the Russians in battle. As is evident from the sources quoted above, Washington clearly does not have the nerve for that.
From Russia Today (RT)
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has revealed the US is studying Moscow’s “concrete” plan to end the war in Syria, while expressing concerns that rhetoric over the humanitarian issue is hindering efforts to resolve the crisis in the Arab country.
“During our contacts with Washington, we have proposed an absolutely concrete plan which they are now studying…I hope the simple proposals the plan contains will not take too much time for Washington to consider,” Lavrov told the Russian daily MK in an interview, while stressing that he could not elaborate on the details of the plan.
The interview, which comes ahead of Diplomat Day in Russia, largely dealt with the “information war” Russia has been embroiled in, according to Lavrov. Russia’s top diplomat said the stand-off goes beyond Eastern Europe, with the settlement of the Syrian crisis seemingly falling prey to it as well.
READ MORE: NATO & European leaders whip up hysteria over ‘myth’ of nuclear threat from Russia – Lavrov
“They’ve tried to turn the humanitarian situation in Syria into almost a measure of the ability to take further steps towards reaching a political settlement [of the crisis], making its resolution a preliminary precondition for starting any meaningful talks between the Syrians,” Lavrov said, adding that Moscow is now increasingly being accused of aggravating the situation by conducting its air campaign against terrorist groups in the Arab country.
Russia has even had to compile a report for the UN explaining who was behind the humanitarian crisis in Syria, he revealed.
The situation has been further aggravated by selective, incomplete coverage of the humanitarian crisis by the Western media, according to the official.
“Just for how long can you talk about 40,000 civilians in Madaya not getting enough food, medicine, and other basic necessities because they are surrounded by government troops, and at the same time turn a blind eye to the fact that 200,000 people have been surrounded by Islamic State fighters and other militants in the city of Deir ez-Zor?” Lavrov said.
The city of Deir ez-Zor is an enclave in eastern Syria controlled by government troops and surrounded by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) jihadists. Russia’s Defense Ministry delivered humanitarian aid to the besieged city in January.
“We started to airdrop humanitarian aid in such [besieged] settlements while being backed and accompanied by Syrian air forces. We were immediately blamed for dropping the cargo blindly, without guarantees that the aid would get into safe hands on the ground. One can invent any reason [for accusations],” Lavrov said.
Lavrov and Kerry agreed in a telephone call last week on plans to convene a meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Munich on February 11, when the sides are to consider “all the aspects of the Syrian settlement.”
The two top diplomats also urged both Bashar Assad and the opposition forces “to ensure humanitarian access… to the areas of the country blocked both by the government troops and the armed opposition units,” the Russian foreign ministry said, adding that Washington and Moscow will look into possibly coordinating their actions to deliver humanitarian aid to certain areas of Syria.