Syrian rebels demand US action ahead of peace talks
LONDON/ONCUPINAR, TURKEY – Rebel groups urged US President Barack Obama to do more to stop Russian bombing raids in Syria as pressure mounted on Washington ahead of a new round of peace talks this week.
World powers are meeting in Germany on Thursday to try to revive the first effort in two years to negotiate an end to the war after it faltered in the starting blocks last week.
But with Moscow backing a Syrian government push for all-out military victory against Western-backed rebels, Western officials and opposition delegates hold out little hope.
Opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat said Obama could stop the Russian attacks, although he did not spell out how.
“If he is willing to save our children it is really the time now to say ‘no’ to these strikes in Syria,” he told Reuters.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for a ceasefire and more humanitarian aid access ahead of a meeting of the International Syria Support Group in Munich.
Moscow said Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed on Wednesday on the need for a ceasefire in Syria and the provision of humanitarian aid to blockaded areas.
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 President Bashar al-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.
Asked how soon a ceasefire could be put in place, a Russian diplomat who declined to be identified said: “Maybe March, I think so.” The Washington Post said Moscow had sent a letter to Washington this week proposing to stop its bombing on March 1, allowing it to continue for another three weeks.
FABIUS QUESTIONS US COMMITMENT
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman plans to visit Moscow in mid-March, Russia’s RIA news agency said, a meeting that would bring together the main sponsors of the opposing sides. Riyadh said on Tuesday it was willing to commit special forces to Syria should a U.S.-led coalition deploy ground troops against Islamic State.
Saudi-backed rebels said they would go to Munich but would only go to U.N. peace talks in Geneva later this month if Russia stopped bombarding their positions and humanitarian aid reached civilians in the areas they control.
Muslat reiterated calls for more military support, notably anti-aircraft missiles, a demand that has so far fallen on deaf ears for fear they could fall into the hands of Islamic State.
“If we had these, this would solve the problem of Syria,” he said. “We really guarantee that they do not go anywhere – that they will be in the hands of the moderates under the eye of our friends, whether European or American.”
Opposition coordinator Riad Hijab said the Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria was bolstering the extremist threat in the Middle East, but the rebels would not give up.
On the ground, rebels say they are fighting for survival.
A commander of a Turkmen contingent within the Levant Front rebel group, Zekeria Karsli, said his men faced attacks on three fronts: Islamic State to the east, Syrian government forces to the south and Kurds to the west.
“Unfortunately the military situation on the battlefield is pretty bad. Russian planes are hitting us from the air and the Iranian/Assad block is hitting us from the ground,” he told Reuters near the Oncupinar border post.
He said Russian warplanes were carrying out hundreds of sorties every day and that the north of Aleppo city was encircled. But he said routes in to rebel-held parts of the city from Idlib province to the west were still open.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also questioned the commitment of the United States.
“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.”
Turkey, meanwhile, upbraided the United States for supporting Syrian Kurdish PYD rebels, saying they were attacking civilians in collaboration with the Russians in what amounted to a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
“Are you on our side or the side of the terrorist PYD?” President Tayyip Erdogan said, referring to Washington’s backing of the group against Islamic State.
FIGHTING OVER ALEPPO
United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has 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 Syrian-Russian-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 ability to bring Moscow around. They said he appeared to believe that since he had 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,” a senior European diplomat said.
Western officials said Moscow was clearly not committed to a ceasefire that would halt what it sees as military momentum that favors the Syrian army and its Iranian-backed supporters.
Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, said Washington had falsely assumed there was no military solution to the Syria crisis.
“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, the 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.
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.
Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have not hidden their view that there is little point in holding negotiations while the Russian air strikes and Syrian government advance continue.
On the other side, Iran says 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. –Reuters