- Syria government offensive routs rebels, closes on Aleppo
- Russia's UN envoy says Syria must follow Kremlin leadership
Russia and the U.S. held “intensive” talks on implementing a limited truce in Syria on Friday as diplomats at the United Nations sparred over a Russian proposal to head off any new intervention by outside powers in the war-torn nation.
The former Cold War foes held consultations in Geneva on a “joint approach” to a cease-fire ahead of a wider meeting of major powers that they will chair, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. In New York, Russia circulated a draft resolution to the UN Security Council calling for all parties to refrain “from interfering in internal affairs of Syria,” support its territorial integrity and “abandon plans for ground operations,” said Vladimir Safronkov, a senior Russian official at to the UN.
A week ago, Russia, the U.S. and other countries agreed to seek a partial cessation of hostilities in Syria to begin within seven days, as well as humanitarian aid deliveries to besieged areas that are already underway. A Syrian government offensive backed by Russian airstrikes has overshadowed the diplomacy and brought the recapture of rebel-held Aleppo, the most populous city and once the thriving commercial hub of Syria, within reach.
“Rather than distract the world with the resolution they just laid down, it’d be great if Russia implemented resolutions already agreed to,” said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN. The Security Council is due to discuss the resolution on Monday.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said his country wants to coordinate its air campaign with the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.
“To combat terrorism, we need not to stop the airstrikes but to have closer coordination in the air and on the ground,” he told state news agency RIA Novosti’s Sputnik foreign-language service. Bogdanov described the talks with the U.S. as “intensive.”
Moderate Syrian rebels should be supplied with surface-to-air missiles to defend against Syrian army air strikes, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in an interview with German weekly Der Spiegel. The missiles will “change the balance of power on the ground,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the weekend that the Syrian peace initiative agreed on Feb. 12 could collapse if the U.S. continues to refuse to coordinate militarily with Russia in Syria. Republican U.S. Senator John McCain criticized the Obama administration for bowing to Russian pressure, warning against “legitimizing their actions in Syria,” which he characterized as “a disaster in the making.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to abandon any idea of a comprehensive military victory in Syria. If Syria follows the Kremlin’s leadership in resolving the five-year war, there’s a chance for a “decent” outcome, according to a transcript of a Kommersant newspaper interview with Churkin posted on the mission’s website.
“If they believe that no cease-fire is necessary and they have to fight to the end, this conflict will go for a very, very long time,” Churkin said. “Whatever the capabilities of the Syrian army, it’s thanks to the effective Russian air campaign that they managed to drive off their opponents from Damascus.”
Russia needs to show its international partners it is serious about implementing the agreement to halt the fighting in Syria, but it won’t stop its air campaign until Aleppo is captured, said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “The bombing will continue, and Assad and Putin are completely in agreement over that,” Malashenko said by phone.
In recent interviews Assad has declared his intention to retake control of the whole country and said a durable cease-fire would require “in the first place preventing terrorists from strengthening their positions.”
The cessation of hostilities is due to apply to all armed groups except for Islamic State, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and any other UN-listed terrorist organizations. The U.S. and its allies, some of whom have been arming foes of Assad including radical Islamists, accuse Russia of targeting moderate opposition groups rather than Islamic State.
Assad’s army could soon take Aleppo, said Churkin. Its advances there come after Syrian forces ended a three-year siege of two Shiite Muslim villages in northern Aleppo province earlier this month, threatening to cut the opposition’s supply routes from Turkey.
The fighting has sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the Turkish border, and has sparked concern about an escalation of the conflict, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia saying they could send troops into Syria as part of any U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.