Russia Warns Assad Over `Fight to End' as Truce Talks to Begin

  • Russian-backed Syria offensive routs rebels, closes on Aleppo
  • Russia's UN envoy says Syria must follow Kremlin leadership

A top Russian diplomat called on President Bashar al-Assad to abandon any idea of a comprehensive military victory in Syria as major powers prepared to meet in Geneva to discuss implementing a limited truce.

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said that 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 an interview with the Kommersant newspaper 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.” he 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, the U.S. and other powers are to meet later on Friday in Geneva to try and make progress on the cease-fire initiative. A week ago in Munich these same countries agreed to seek a partial cessation of hostilities in Syria to start within seven days, as well as humanitarian aid deliveries to besieged areas that are already underway.

Overshadowing the international diplomacy, a Syrian government offensive backed by Russian airstrikes is making the biggest gains of the conflict, and has set its sights on recapturing rebel-held Aleppo, the most populous city and once the thriving commercial hub of Syria.

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.

Friday Talks

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 United Nations-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.

U.S. and Russian military officials held a preliminary meeting late Thursday ahead of the wider international talks, an American diplomat said. The negotiations on Friday are not expected to produce an agreement as more work is required, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter is confidential.

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, cutting the opposition’s main supply route from Turkey.

The fighting has sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the Turkish border, and have threatened to escalate 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.

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