x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Fighting flares in Damascus, as Russia and US vow to hold Syria peace conference

Fighting intensifies in flashpoints across Damascus, as long-delayed peace conference returns to the agenda, but not until September at the earliest.

Syrian rebels inspect what's left of a government convoy following clashes in the outskirts of the northern city of Raqqa.
Syrian rebels inspect what's left of a government convoy following clashes in the outskirts of the northern city of Raqqa.

BEIRUT //Fighting flared in flashpoints across Damascus yesterday, as Russian and American officials vowed to hold a long-delayed peace conference, but not until September at the earliest.

At least 14 people were killed yesterday in army shelling on the rebel village Kafr Batna near the Syrian capital, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based watchdog said.

Other districts of the capital came under assault as well. Syrian state television said the army had "restored security and stability in most of Jubar" in eastern Damascus.

In central Syria, rebels in besieged districts of Homs city were still holding out four days into an army assault in which the Lebanese Shiite group, Hizbollah, is also taking part, said the Observatory.

Late on Monday, the US deputy secretary of state, William Burns, who is on an official visit to Lebanon, denounced Hizbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war.

"Despite its membership in the Lebanese government, Hizbollah has decided to put its own interests and those of its foreign backers above those of the Lebanese people," Burns said.

"That intervention may be in Hizbollah's interests, it may be in the interest of Iran, it may be in the interest of [the Syrian president] Bashar Al Assad, but it is not in the interest of Lebanon or the Lebanese people."

As the fighting continued, the United States and Russia said that a conference to find a "peaceful settlement" to the two-year-old civil war was still at least several months off.

"We both agreed that our countries have the ability to be able to make a difference if we can pull together in this effort," said the US secretary of state, John Kerry, at the US embassy in Brunei, after talks with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, during a two-day meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

While both countries agreed in principle to a conference, "there are still things that have to be worked out over these next days" and talks may not occur until after August, Mr Kerry said.

The US and Russia have disagreed on how the conflict might be resolved throughout its two-year duration, a dispute that worsened after the administration of the US president, Barack Obama, announced plans to send arms to the rebels seeking to topple Mr Al Assad.

Mr Lavrov called that decision "a disaster" for the prospects of a peaceful resolution. Russia backs the regime of Mr Al Assad and supplies it with weapons, while the US has said Mr Al Assad must go.

Mr Kerry reiterated yesterday that a change of leadership in Syria was needed to bring a settlement to the conflict.

"Whether the regime is doing better or the opposition is doing better is frankly not determined by that outcome," he said of the chance for a settlement. "The outcome requires a transition government."

After meeting Mr Lavrov, Mr Kerry said he was convinced that both the US and Russia had "the level of seriousness and the capacity of being able to do this".

The agreement comes a year after the Geneva conference that called on all parties to cease violence and begin a "Syrian-led political process leading to a transition".

The communique, from countries including the US, Russia and China as well as the United Nations and the Arab League, declared a "firm timetable" without any dates or deadlines.

At the time, the death toll in Syria was estimated by the UN at more than 10,000. It has reached more than 93,000, the world body said.

Mr Kerry said a conference may be months away, partly because there's already a US-Russia meeting planned for July on other matters and "August is very difficult for Europeans".

* Bloomberg and the Associated Press