U.S., Russia Try Syria Diplomacy as Bombs Risk Deeper Rift

  • Kerry, Lavrov meet Mideast powers; Russia warns of U.S. clash
  • Assad says Aleppo capture will be ‘springboard’ for new gains

The U.S. and Russia held talks with Middle Eastern powers over the deepening war in Syria in a bid to row back from a diplomatic collision over the siege of Aleppo in a standoff that has brought ties between the Cold War adversaries to a new low.

With their counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Swiss lakeside city of Lausanne Saturday, aiming to restore a truce to deliver aid supplies to Aleppo and other besieged areas. Lavrov ahead of the meeting said that Russia is seeking “concrete work,” although he didn’t outline any specific goals. Kerry told reporters that participants in the talks were “working very hard” to help the people of Aleppo.

John Kerry arrives in Lausanne on Oct. 15.

Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Russia has said Syria is willing to examine a United Nations proposal for safe passage out of opposition-held eastern Aleppo for al-Qaeda fighters who are intermingled with American-backed rebels. The U.S. says the meeting should mainly focus on Russia and Syria halting their bombing of the country’s former commercial capital, where 250,000 are trapped, to allow humanitarian access. A lasting agreement is likely to be difficult for Kerry to achieve with U.S. presidential elections next month.

Lame Duck

“The Iranians and the Russians are taking advantage of this lame-duck presidency to, as best they can, improve their positions in and around Aleppo before the next president comes in,” Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said by phone. “They feel the real negotiation is not going to be with Kerry in his last weeks. This is the time for quick gains. I don’t expect anything much to come out of the talks.”

The 5 1/2-year conflict, which has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced millions, is at increasing risk of morphing into a proxy war between Russia, the U.S. and regional powers. The offensive at Aleppo has ignited tensions in the UN Security Council, raised the possibility of more sanctions against Russia and prompted comments on Russian state media about “a nuclear dimension” in any confrontation with the U.S. The Kremlin has rejected accusations of war crimes as the U.S. and its allies consider giving rebels more weapons to fight President Bashar al-Assad.

Pressure, Hysteria

President Vladimir Putin this week pledged that Russia won’t give in to “blackmail and pressure” over its campaign in Syria, which also incorporates Shiite fighters backed by Iran and Hezbollah. He accused the U.S. of whipping up “anti-Russian hysteria” after Russia vetoed a French-proposed UN Security Council resolution on Oct. 8 demanding an immediate halt to Russian and Syrian air strikes in Aleppo.

Along with Kerry and Lavrov, those at the meeting include UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, Saudi Arabia’s Adel al-Jubeir, Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif, Egypt’s Sameh Shukri, Qatar’s Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani, Iraq’s Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Jordan’s Nasser Judeh and Turkey’s Mevlut Cavusoglu. The talks mark the first attempt at diplomacy since a U.S.-Russian cease-fire collapsed in September. That deal, hammered out over months of negotiations, lasted only a week and led to an immediate stepped-up bombing of Aleppo.

The resumption of hostilities kicked off an escalating spiral of accusations, with Kerry saying last week Russia and Assad “owe the world more than an explanation” for attacks made to “terrorize civilians and to kill anybody and everybody who is in the way of their military objectives.”

Delaying the Inevitable

The head of the Russian lower house of parliament’s defense committee, Vladimir Shamanov, warned in an interview on state TV broadcast Saturday that “the likelihood is increasing” of a direct military clash between Russia and the U.S.

A senior Russian official said Moscow hadn’t ruled out the possibility of a strike on Russian servicemen stationed in Syria by the U.S.-led coalition. Such risks remain high while the offensive to capture Aleppo continues, said the official, who asked not be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. All U.S.-driven initiatives such as safe corridors for fighters will merely delay the inevitable, and the city should fall into Assad’s hands by the end of the year, he said.

The Russian and Syrian bombing of Aleppo, once a city of 2.3 million near the northwestern border with Turkey, has eased only slightly after a punishing wave of strikes from late September to early October. Opposition activists said the attacks killed hundreds of civilians and destroyed hospitals, sparking international condemnation.

Aleppo Springboard

Even with the renewed bid at diplomacy, Russia is pressing on with an offensive aimed at capturing Aleppo within a matter of months and locking in gains on the battlefield before a new U.S. president takes office in January, according to top lawmakers in Moscow. 

For his part, Assad said Aleppo is an important “springboard” in the campaign against the rebels, according to an interview in English published Friday in Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. The remaining rebel stronghold of Idlib, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) southwest of Aleppo, would be the next objective, he said. If taken, it would hand the government control of all major urban centers in Syria except for Raqqa, the capital of the self-declared caliphate of Islamic State.

Supplying Arms

Meanwhile, the U.S. is examining ways to provide more weapons to opposition fighters via allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, according to a U.S. administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Following the meeting in Lausanne, Kerry will head to London for talks with key allies on Sunday.

Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said supplying arms to the rebels would press upon Russia “the point that there must be a return to the cease-fire and to the negotiating table.” Even though it won’t prevent the capture of Aleppo, it might slow the offensive, he said.

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