U.S., Russia Make Syria Diplomacy Push as Assad Gains Ground

Michael Fallon: Russia Must Stop Strikes in Syria Now
  • Kerry, Lavrov among 17 diplomats to hold talks in Munich
  • Russian-backed advances help Assad consolidate territory

The U.S. and Russia are seeking to revive Syrian peace talks as President Bashar al-Assad’s advance against rebels shifts the focus to the battlefield.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will meet with foreign ministers from Europe and the Middle East in Munich on Thursday after talks between the government and opposition broke down last week and Assad’s Russian-backed encirclement of Aleppo stoked the exodus of Syrian refugees.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

“The peace process isn’t dead, but it’s not clear if it will yield anything or when,” said Irina Zvyagelskaya, senior fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies. “We are facing major problems. The approaches are quite different.”

The talks in the Bavarian capital, which include United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura, are gaining urgency as Saudi Arabia weighs sending special forces to Syria to augment the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants. Most participants will stay on for this weekend’s annual Munich Security Conference, where foreign-policy, defense and intelligence officials meet to address global crises.

Lavrov, Kerry and their colleagues will discuss a cease-fire and humanitarian relief in Syria, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday. Assad’s military offensive near the Turkish border is legally justified, she said.

U.S. Goal

“‘We hope that when we meet in Munich in the next few days we’ll be in a position where we can make progress” on “full humanitarian access and a full cease-fire,” Kerry said Monday after meeting Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Washington.

Lavrov said last week a cease-fire will only be possible once the Syrian army retakes control of the border with Turkey to block the routes “used to smuggle supplies to terrorists.”

The main Syrian opposition group, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, demanded an end to Russia’s air campaign along with humanitarian steps as a condition for attending the next round of Geneva peace talks, scheduled for Feb. 25. “Russian air strikes must end to create a suitable atmosphere for negotiations,” Riad Nassan Agha, a member of the HNC, said by phone.

Merkel’s Challenge

Germany is among European countries seeking diplomatic progress after taking in more than 1 million refugees last year, about half of them from Syria.

Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed shock at the humanitarian conditions in Syria and publicly blamed Russia when she visited Ankara for talks with Turkish leaders on Monday.

“We’re not only shocked, but also outraged, at what’s happened in terms of human suffering in the past few days for tens of thousands of people through bomb attacks, including attacks above all from Russia,” Merkel said. “We need results swiftly.”

Syria’s five-year civil war entered a new phase last year when Russia joined the conflict on the side of Assad, whose control had progressively slipped to rebels and terrorist groups. Six months into the Russian campaign, Syria’s government, backed by Iranian and Hezbollah troops, is retaking territory and supply routes held by the opposition.

Rebel Retreat

UN-brokered peace talks broke down last week in Geneva after government forces raised the pressure on rebels by encircling Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a stronghold for the resistance. Kerry on Jan. 31 urged all sides to join negotiations, citing the risk that the country could break up.

Aleppo’s fall would be a serious blow to the rebels, according to Julian Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“It’s seen as the heart of what’s left of the rebel movement in terms of holding a major city without being infested by Islamic State,” Barnes-Dacey said from London. “If Assad can get that, then it’s hard to imagine the opposition surviving.”

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