Push for Aleppo ceasefire ahead of Muslim holiday
GENEVA / ALEPPO
REUTERS photoThe United States and Russia grappled over a possible cease-fire deal for Syria on Sept. 9 ahead of the Eid al-Adha starting on Sept. 12, as resurgent Moscow-backed regime forces tightened the noose on the beleaguered city of Aleppo.
In Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry was once more locked in talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov but U.S. officials warned talks could not go on forever without a breakthrough.
The negotiations were focusing on clinching a cease-fire, getting humanitarian aid to civilians and starting political talks to end the five-year war that has killed more than 290,000.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, held a telephone conversation on the issue on Sept. 8, agreeing to intensify efforts to convince the warring parties in Aleppo to implement a cease-fire.
Erdoğan stressed the importance of announcing a cease-fire as soon as possible in the rebel-held northern city that is under a devastating siege.
The pair also discussed Operation Euphrates Shield launched late last month by Turkey and agreed on the importance of eliminating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other terror groups along the Turkish border – the stated goal of the operation in northern Syria.
Erdoğan said the original residents of Jarablus and al-Rai had already begun to return from Turkey.
However, the vexed question of President Bashar al-Assad’s fate remains, with Western powers calling for his removal and Russia backing him.
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.
But they warned there was no guarantee of a final agreement.
The ministers met in the familiar confines of a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva and made brief remarks to reporters about North Korea’s latest nuclear test before beginning closed-door talks on Syria.
U.N. envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura said a successful outcome from the talks could provide a major boost towards resolving the conflict that has killed 290,000 people.
“[It] 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,” de Mistura said in Geneva.
Washington wants concrete steps from Russia to force al-Assad to stop bombing his own people, respect a cease-fire and 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 U.S. 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 Sept. 8.
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 neighborhoods.
And in another major blow to the rebels, the top military commander of the Army of Conquest, the largest rebel alliance, was killed in an air strike during a meeting of the leaders of the anti-government group, Islamist sources said Spt. 8.
The former Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate recently renamed Fateh al-Sham Front, announced “the martyrdom” of commander Abu Omar Sarakeb on Twitter, in the biggest setback to the group since its formation early last year.
“The rebels are now back to square one, under an even more ruthless siege,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the observatory, told AFP.
In the besieged city, 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.
In the nearby al-Sakhur district, Abu Omar says he is bracing himself for more shortages.
He and his three children are surviving on rice, bulghur wheat and lentils, and have not had bread in three days.
“There’s a risk that we’ll be starving in two weeks,” he said. Ahead of the Geneva talks, the U.S. pressed Russia for a “true cessation of hostilities” against a backdrop of continued military turmoil but warned that its patience is running thin.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told BBC radio on Sept. 8 there was “quite a long way to go” before a final peace deal could be struck.
Lavrov has suggested that problems in another part of the world – namely, U.S. sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis – may be hampering efforts between the former Cold War rivals to resolve the Syrian crisis.
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.