Syria cease-fire possible ‘if Turkey seals border’
AFP photoShutting down smuggling across the Turkish-Syrian border is a condition for halting Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said as peace talks in Geneva began to encounter more difficulty.
It will be difficult to impose a cease-fire unless Syria’s border with Turkey is secured to prevent smuggling and the movement of fighters, he said.
“Regarding a cease-fire, we have pragmatic ideas, we talked with the Americans who head the Syria support group, and we look forward to discussing these ideas at a meeting on Feb. 11,” Lavrov said Feb. 3 in Muscat, referring to the International Syria Support Group that is due to meet in Munich on Feb. 11.
Russia has accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his family of helping the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) through illegal oil trading, claims Ankara has strongly denied.
Lavrov said Russia would not stop its air strikes on Syria until terrorist organizations, like ISIL and al-Nusra, were defeated.
“Russian strikes will not cease until we really defeat terrorist organizations like al-Nusra. And I don’t see why these air strikes should be stopped,” Lavrov was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Lavrov’s comments came at a time when the Syria peace talks in Geneva have become troubled as the Syrian government denied formal talks had begun and the opposition canceled a second meeting with U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura following intense Russian air strikes.
One day after declaring that the talks in Geneva were still “in a preparatory phase” – contrary to de Mistura’s words on Feb. 1 stating the peace talks had officially started – the Syrian government’s delegation chief, Bashar al-Ja’afari, said the preparatory phase of the talks was likely to take longer than anticipated.
“It seems the first phase of preparations will take a much longer time expected and we don’t know yet when we will finish,” al-Ja’afari told Reuters in an interview. “The official discussions did not take off yet unfortunately. We are still discussing how to proceed.”
Ja’afari said the government was still unclear on who its interlocutors would be, how many delegations they would face and the names of all participants.
“I couldn’t tell you much about what’s going on because we are waiting for Godot and Godot hasn’t come yet,” he said.
Godot was a fictional character in the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot.” In the play, two other characters wait for someone called Godot who never arrives.
De Mistura announced the formal start on Feb. 1 of the first attempt in two years to negotiate an end to a war that has killed 250,000 people, caused a refugee crisis in the region and Europe and empowered ISIL militants. But both government and opposition have since said the talks have not in fact begun, and fighting on the ground has raged on without constraint.
Meanwhile, Syrian opposition chief Riad Hijab arrived in Switzerland in the afternoon of Feb. 3, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said, according to AFP.
“Riad Hijab has arrived in Geneva,” the Saudi-backed HNC said on its official Twitter account.
Hijab was expected to immediately join a tense internal HNC meeting in which the group would decide its next steps in the talks.
“With Hijab here, the HNC can better demonstrate a unified position in representing the opposition,” a Western diplomat told AFP in Geneva on condition of anonymity.
“This is a very complicated process, and it’s going to require all the actors to remain in constant dialogue,” the diplomat said.
On the same day, the International Committee for the Red Cross said an aid convoy was en route to a besieged rebel-held town near Damascus.
The convoy heading to Moadamiyeh is the second humanitarian aid delivery to rebel-held areas near the capital in as many days, a spokesman for the organization, Pawel Krzysiek told The Associated Press, adding that 12 trucks carrying food, medicine and medical equipment were expected to arrive later in the day.
The humanitarian situation in the town worsened toward the end of last year after the government choked off the last access point. Opposition activists and residents say there are dozens of cases of severe malnutrition in Moadamiyeh.
The aid delivery appears to be a confidence-building gesture on the part of the government after the Geneva talks began with tension.
The Syrian opposition has demanded that aid be allowed into 18 besieged areas throughout the country and that Syrian and Russian forces halt the bombardment of rebel-held areas ahead of the talks.
Syria’s opposition said on Feb. 3 that such deliveries are meaningless while government troops launch an offensive on Aleppo, further undermining prospects for peace talks underway in Geneva.
The latest aid delivery is a “positive development,” said Basma Kodmani, a member of the HNC in Geneva, but “it is way below what we are hoping to see happen.”