U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry criticized the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad for undermining peace efforts and targeting negotiation partners in the Geneva talks that recessed without progress last week.
“None of us are surprised that the talks have been hard and that we are at a difficult moment, but we should all agree that the Assad regime’s obstruction has made progress even tougher,” Kerry said in a Feb. 16 statement.
While the Syrian opposition offered a road map to a transitional government, “we have seen a refusal to engage on the part of the regime,” Kerry said.
“While it stalled in Geneva, the regime intensified its barbaric assault on its civilian population with barrel bombs and starvation,” he said. “It has even gone as far as to add some of the opposition delegates at Geneva to a terrorist list and seize their assets. This is reprehensible.”
The top U.S. diplomat’s statement was the strongest signal from President Barack Obama’s administration that the peace talks aimed at removing Assad from power may fail, even as the White House continues to press for a diplomatic solution that avoids U.S. military intervention.
Syrian government and opposition representatives ended a second round of peace talks without agreeing on a date for the next meeting, United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said Feb. 15.
Negotiations ended after Assad’s regime refused to discuss a transitional government with an opposition delegation, Brahimi told reporters. The talks began on Jan. 24 under UN mediation.
“I apologize to the Syrian people that on these two rounds, we haven’t helped them much,” Brahimi said.
Discussions in Geneva have stalled over an agenda to end the three-year war that’s killed more than 130,000 people and sent more than 2 million refugees fleeing to neighboring countries. The government insists on tackling terrorism -- its term for the opposition -- while the rebels want to focus on a transitional government to replace Assad. Brahimi said Assad’s envoys refused to discuss a transitional government.
Kerry said the international community must use the recess in talks “to determine how best to use this time and its resumption to find a political solution to this horrific civil war.”
Obama has asked for a fresh review of U.S. options toward Syria as peace talks have stalled and suffering intensifies, Kerry said last week.
The president last week said the U.S. isn’t moving closer to taking military action, an option he withdrew in September in exchange for an agreement engineered by Russia, an Assad ally, for the regime to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal.
Kerry, in his statement, made a veiled reference to Russia, saying supporters of the Syrian president’s regime should press it to negotiate a peace deal.
“In the end, they will bear responsibility if the regime continues with its intransigence in the talks and its brutal tactics on the ground,” Kerry said of Assad backers.
Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, accused the U.S. today of trying to create a “very negative climate for dialogue in Geneva,” the Associated Press reported.
In addition to an escalating humanitarian disaster, a prolonged civil war in Syria is rapidly becoming a proxy war between Shiite Persian Iran and the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, said a U.S. intelligence official who follows the conflict.
The breakdown of the talks and the resulting continuation of the fighting will add to the pressures of a growing refugee population and may trigger Islamic militancy in neighboring Jordan and Iraq. The breakdown may also encourage further Kurdish independence movements in Turkey, Iraq and parts of Syria and Iran, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because intelligence assessments are classified.
If it continues, the Syrian regime’s use of low-tech “barrel bombs” to level Aleppo, the country’s largest city, could force the U.S. and its allies to supply some rebel groups with more advanced weapons, or even mount direct cruise-missile attacks on Syrian military airfields and munitions facilities, although that would be a last resort, the official said.
U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, a top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, urged the Obama administration yesterday to consider sending more arms to the Syrian opposition.
Calling Obama’s Syria policy “an abysmal failure,” McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program, “There is still viable opposition that we can help and assist.”
While Obama said on Feb. 11 that he reserves the right to use military force, he also said, “Right now we don’t think that there’s a military solution, per se, to the problem.”
Instead, the U.S. is supporting action at the UN Security Council, where its Western and Arab allies circulated a draft resolution on Feb. 11 demanding that civilians be allowed to leave besieged areas. It also called on Syrian authorities to allow humanitarian access across conflict lines and from neighboring countries, particularly Turkey and Iraq.
A truce brokered by the UN in the city of Homs, the only achievement of the peace talks so far, has allowed some aid workers to deliver food and medicine to hundreds of civilians trapped in the city, while evacuating others.
Valerie Amos, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, made an appeal to the Security Council last week to do more to ease the suffering, which has left more than 9.6 million Syrians in need of urgent aid.