x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Kerry and Lavrov hold tense negotiations ahead of Syria peace talks

The stage is set for the Syrian regime and opposition groups to discuss confidence building measures at the Geneva 2 peace conference on January 22.

PARIS // Syria’s government and some rebels may be willing to permit humanitarian aid to flow, enforce local ceasefires and take other confidence-building measures in the nearly three-year-old civil war, the United States secretary of state, John Kerry, said on Monday.

Mr Kerry said that he and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, “talked today about the possibility of trying to encourage a ceasefire. Maybe a localised ceasefire, beginning with Aleppo,” Syria’s largest city. “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”, Mr Kerry 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, 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.

But 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 Mr Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations secretary general’s top Syria envoy.

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

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

Mr Kerry expressed some scepticism that Mr Al 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.”

Mr Kerry said he and Mr 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 US 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,” Mr 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.

Mr Brahimi has also argued that Iran should attend the planned talks.

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 US interprets that language as requiring Mr 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,” Mr 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.

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

Also on Monday, Mr Al Assad’s regime warned against preconditions for talks, a day after an opposition leader said his departure was “inevitable”.

“Any person who seeks preconditions or mistakes their dreams for reality is leading to the failure of the Geneva conference before it even starts,” Syrian state media quoted a foreign ministry source as saying.

The statement came after the Sunday meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria, a grouping of nations that back the Syrian opposition.

Speaking at the end of the meeting, the president of the opposition National Coalition, Ahmed Jarba, said: “We all agreed that there is no future for Bashar Al Assad and his family in Syria.”

The Syrian government has said it will attend the talks but that Mr Al Assad’s departure from office is not on the table.

“We consider any statement, opinion or announcement before the Geneva conference to be worthless, desperate attempts by certain people to hide the defeats of their gang on the ground,” state media quoted the foreign ministry source as saying.

* Reuters and Agence France-Presse