Russia, U.S. Set August Deadline to Push Syria Peace Talks

  • Kerry says Russia, U.S. have `unanimity' of vision for Syria
  • UN-led negotiations deadlocked on fate of Russia's ally Assad

The U.S. and Russia set an August deadline for a deal to end Syria’s five-year war as they agreed to try to push forward negotiations between the government and opposition that remain deadlocked over the fate of Russian ally President Bashar al-Assad.

“We will accelerate the effort to try and move the political process forward,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said early Friday at a Kremlin news conference after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin for four hours.

Lavrov said Russia is committed to promoting a political transition in Syria, though it must be based on “mutual consent” in line with international agreements on resolving the crisis. “We have agreed that the pressure on all the sides must be increased,” he said.

The United Nations-sponsored talks in Geneva mark the most serious effort yet to end the war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people. The conflict has sparked a refugee exodus to Europe and given Islamic State a safe haven from which to expand across the region and plot terror attacks such as this week’s bombings in Belgium. The attacks that killed 31 and injured 270 in Brussels, the worst in Belgium’s history, have given an added sense of urgency to efforts to end the Syrian crisis.

August Target

Russia and the U.S., which brokered a partial cease-fire last month, agreed at the talks to step up efforts to cement the truce and other measures aimed at supporting the peace process. These include urging the government and opposition to start discussing details of a political transition and enter into direct talks. The two countries also called for expanded humanitarian access and for both sides in the conflict to start freeing detainees.

The U.S. and Russia will push for an agreement on a “framework for a political transition” and a draft constitution by August, Kerry said. “I believe Russia is fully engaged in this effort, and all of us are going to try and get President Assad to make the right decision in the next few days to engage in a political process that results in a genuine transition and in peace for Syria.”

Putin last week ordered the partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria after more than five months of airstrikes in support of Assad that helped tip the balance in the conflict with rebels. The pullout gave a “new impetus” to the negotiations between the government and opposition, according to the UN.

‘Red Line’

Assad has so far refused to present an alternative to opposition proposals for a political transition at the peace talks, which include a demand for his resignation. Syrian authorities have indicated that they will accept only a limited role for the opposition in a national unity government, and that discussing the possibility of Assad stepping down is a “red line.”

The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, published a document Thursday listing a dozen joint principles between the government and opposition as a basis for political transition. They include maintaining the unity of Syria, a democratic and non-sectarian state, the continuity and reform of state institutions, and the disarmament and integration of armed groups into a unified national army. The Geneva talks adjourned Thursday after more than 10 days and are due to resume in April.

U.A.E.’s Role

Putin discussed the Syrian peace process with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is deputy supreme commander of the U.A.E.’s armed forces, at a meeting in Moscow Thursday. The U.A.E. is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, which wants Assad to leave office. The crown prince also met Kerry in the Russian capital.

Russia is ready for dialogue with the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee and has invited it to Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told reporters Thursday.

The U.S. and its allies are counting on Russia to come to the realization that it’s better to try to preserve the Syrian state than Assad’s rule at all costs, a Western diplomat in Geneva said. A transitional government has to mean that Assad has no powers even if he remains formally in office, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the deliberations are confidential.

Russia has managed to convince the U.S. to put aside the question of Assad for the moment in order to enable the Syrian peace talks to get under way, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Friday, Interfax reported.

Major powers endorsed a road-map in November that would establish a transitional ruling body with full executive authority in Syria of government and opposition members within six months. This would lead to internationally supervised elections under a new constitution a year later.

“We have a unanimity about the vision of how we can achieve peace in Syria,” Kerry said, describing the Moscow talks as “productive.”

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