13 Jan 2014

Syria: US and Russia discuss ceasefires and access to aid

Syria’s government and some rebels could let humanitarian aid flow and enforce local ceasefires in the country’s civil war, US Secretary of State John Kerry announces.

Mr Kerry said that he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “talked today about the possibility of trying to encourage a ceasefire. Maybe a localised ceasefire, beginning with Aleppo. And both of us have agreed to try to work to see if that could be achieved.”

Syrian rebels backed by Washington have agreed that, if the government commits to such a partial ceasefire, “they would live up to it”, he said.

Given the history of failed attempts to end the war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions, it remains far from clear that even a partial ceasefire can be achieved or, if it is, it can hold.

It also seems unlikely to be honoured by powerful militant Islamist rebel factions, some of whom are at war with both Damascus and other rebel groups backed by the west and Gulf states.

It comes as it was revealed that British warship HMS Montrose will help escort Syrian chemical stocks that are set to be destroyed, William Hague said on Monday.

The foreign secretary said the Royal Navy ship is about to join Danish and Norwegian vessels which are transporting the material as part of agreed international efforts to rid President Bashar Assad’s regime of the lethal weapons.

Mr Hague also told MPs further British aid will be pledged to the Syrian humanitarian effort and welcomed the country’s moderate opposition’s willingness to fight against al Qaida-linked extremists, claiming this gives a lie to President Assad’s view that there is no choice between his regime or extremists.

Improve atmosphere for peace talks

Diplomats are trying to persuade the combatants to agree to a series of steps to improve the atmosphere for Syrian peace talks planned for Switzerland on January 22.

Mr Kerry spoke at a press conference in Paris with Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Secretary General’s top Syria envoy.

Mr Lavrov, whose government backs Assad, said the Syrian government had indicated it might provide access for humanitarian aid to reach besieged areas.

He specifically cited the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, where 160,000 people have been largely trapped by fighting, according to the United Nations.

“We await similar steps by the opposition,” Lavrov said.

Mr Kerry expressed some scepticism that Assad’s government would follow through.

“The proof will be in the pudding, as we say,” he said. “This news of a possibility is welcome.”

Possible exchange of prisoners

Kerry said he and Lavrov had also discussed a possible exchange of prisoners between the sides.

The opposition is ready to put together a list of prisoners and “are prepared to entertain such an exchange”, he said.

But Russia and the United States remained sharply divided over whether Iran, which is a major player in the Syria conflict, should attend the peace talks, which will convene in Montreux, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

“I’m convinced that practicality and pragmatism … require that Iran should be invited,” Lavrov said.

Other countries have already been invited “who do not want the conference to succeed”, he said, in apparent reference to Gulf Arab countries who are arming rebel groups.

Brahimi has also argued that Iran should attend the planned talks. Discussions on the matter are continuing, he said on Monday.

US: Assad should go

But Mr Kerry reiterated the US view that Iranian delegates should come only if they are willing to accept an agreement reached at a June 2012 peace conference in Geneva that calls for a transitional government body to be established in Damascus “by mutual consent”.

The United States interprets that language as requiring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure from power; Russia disagrees.

“Iran’s participation or non-participation is not a question of ideology. It is a question of practicality and common sense,” Kerry said.

“I invite Iran today to join the community of nations, the 30 nations that are already prepared to come, and be a constructive partner for peace,” he said. “That’s the invitation.”

The main Syrian opposition group backed by the West has said it will decide on Friday whether to attend the peace conference, known as Geneva 2.

“If we want to end this war, there is no other solution than to talk. Talk means negotiate. That’s the objective of Geneva 2,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told BFM-TV.

“We hope Geneva 2 takes place, but it’s not set yet. Bashar (al-Assad) and the terrorists are doing the utmost to prevent negotiations.”