Kerry ‘Hopeful’ on End to Aleppo Siege as U.S., Russia Eye Dealby and
Top diplomats met repeatedly at security conference in Germany
Next round of U.S.-Russia talks set for Saturday in Geneva
The U.S. and Russia introduced a fresh push toward sealing an agreement to halt the siege of Aleppo as Syrian government forces tighten their grip on the opposition stronghold.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met three times in 24 hours in the German port city of Hamburg on the sidelines of a gathering of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Lavrov said U.S. and Russian diplomats and military experts will resume talks on Saturday in Geneva.
“We are working on something,” Kerry told reporters as he emerged from a bilateral meeting with Lavrov before leaving the international gathering. He’ll attend a meeting of European and Arab allies on Saturday in Paris to discuss Syria.
The flurry of diplomacy comes as pressure builds on the Kremlin to use its leverage over its Syrian ally to push for an immediate cease-fire allowing for humanitarian access to eastern Aleppo and a return to a political process. Syria’s six-year-old war, which has killed about 300,000 people and displaced millions, dominated discussions on the sidelines of the conference in Germany. Several hundred thousand civilians remain trapped in eastern Aleppo.
Russian-backed air strikes have propelled Syrian forces and their allies deeper into rebel-held sections of the city, Syria’s former commercial capital, where they’ve seized 70 percent of territory once controlled by opposition fighters. The U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Canada issued a joint statement Wednesday condemning the assault and singling out Russia for preventing humanitarian access.
Lavrov said the current round of talks aims to lead to “the final resolution of the east Aleppo problem through the exit of all militants.” Kerry said he was “hopeful” for a breakthrough, without elaborating. A previous cease-fire agreement, thrashed out following months of negotiations between Russia and the U.S., collapsed in September after only a week.
The Russian foreign minister rejected accusations that the Kremlin is holding up a solution to the conflict, accusing the United Nations’ special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, of “sabotaging” the peace process. The UN, which has suspended talks because western-backed Syrian opposition forces have balked at attending, should convene a new round anyway, Lavrov said.
Tension between the Kremlin and the U.S. and European allies spilled over to the OSCE meeting, with Lavrov during the session citing the “myth of a Russian threat.”
“We urge an end to warlike rhetoric, which continues every day,” Lavrov told the group, referring to NATO’s expansion into former Soviet territory. “If you want to invite your partners for dialogue, then you shouldn’t start with accusations and demands to hold dialogue based on ultimatums.”
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the meeting’s host, lamented the heightened tension with the Kremlin and addressed other conflicts within the OSCE’s remit, including the the stalled peace process in eastern Ukraine, which he called “unacceptable.” Kerry called for “full implementation” of the so-called Minsk accord that sets out a cease-fire and political measures on Ukraine.
“Our foundations have become fragile, the tone has become more bitter, especially between the east and west,” Steinmeier told reporters earlier in the German port city.
Earlier, Kerry and Lavrov discussed “multilateral efforts to achieve a cessation of hostilities in Aleppo” and the delivery of humanitarian aid, the State Department said in a statement.
A number of Syrian rebel factions asked for a five-day pause to fighting to allow for the evacuation of civilians and the wounded, the Associated Press reported. The rebel statement made no mention of a pullout of militants as demanded by Russia, the AP said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said Thursday that the U.S. and Russia were moving close to an agreement on Aleppo, Interfax reported. The ministry said later that the U.S. had agreed to facilitate the rebels’ departure. Lavrov said Tuesday in Moscow that the “terrorists” holed up in Aleppo will be “destroyed” if they “refuse to leave nicely.”
Capturing Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city, would hand Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad control of all major urban centers, marking a turning point in the war. Russia’s military intervention in September 2015 averted the Syrian leadership’s collapse and allowed Assad’s forces to decisively push back rebel forces.