x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

US and Russia in fresh push on Syria crisis

Striking gains by the rebels and fears the regime could deploy chemical weapons could result in a softening of Kremlin's stance.

DUBLIN // Diplomatic efforts to end Syria's civil war moved forward yesterday with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, joining Russia's foreign minister and the UN peace envoy for extraordinary three-way talks that suggested Washington and Moscow might finally unite behind a strategy as the regime weakens.

On the sidelines of a human-rights conference, Mrs Clinton met Sergei Lavrov and mediator Lakhdar Brahimi to look for a way the international community could rally around to end Syria's 21-month civil war.

The former Cold War foes have fought bitterly over how to address the conflict, but Mr Clinton stressed before the meeting that they shared a common goal.

"We have been trying hard to work with Russia to try to stop the bloodshed in Syria and start a political transition for a post- [Bashar Al] Assad Syrian future," Mr Clinton said.

The talks came ahead of a meeting of the western-backed "Friends of Syria" group in Marrakech next week, which is expected to boost support for rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

"Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating and we see that in many different ways. The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing. We've made it clear what our position is with respect to chemical weapons and I think we will discuss that and many other aspects," Mrs Clinton said.

Russia and the United States will seek a "creative" solution to the Syrian crisis, Mr Bahimi said, "We haven't taken any sensational decision.

"We have agreed that the situation is bad and we have agreed that we must continue to work together to see how we can find creative ways of bringing this problem under control," he added.

Mr Al Assad's deputy foreign minister said yesterday that western powers were whipping up fears of a fateful move to the use of chemical weapons in Syria's civil war as a "pretext for intervention".

In Moscow, a senior Russian lawmaker and ally of Vladimir Putin described Syria's government as being incapable of doing its job properly, in a sign Russia is trying to distance itself from Mr Al Assad.

Mr Clinton held a bilateral meeting with Mr Lavrov ahead of the talks with Mr Brahimi on the sidelines of an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe gathering. Mr Brahimi also met separately with Mr Lavrov.

A western diplomatic source hinted that at least some change may be forthcoming from Russia.

"I don't really know what may come out of the meeting, but I'd expect something based on the Geneva agreement as I cannot imagine Russia now changing completely on Assad. So I am not expecting anything radically new, rather a new version of Geneva maybe," the source said.

The Geneva Declaration, which was agreed when Kofi Annan was international mediator, called for a transitional administration but did not specify what role, if any, Mr Al Assad would have.

The US has seen intelligence raising serious concerns that Mr Al Assad's government is considering using chemical weapons, defence secretary, Leon Panetta, said yesterday without elaborating on the nature of that intelligence.

"I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons," Mr Panetta said.

"The intelligence that we have raises serious concerns that this is being considered."

Several western countries have issued coordinated warnings this week to Mr Al Assad's government not to use chemical weapons, many citing secret intelligence that US officials have said showed Mr Al Assad's government might be preparing to use poison gas.

The US president, Barack Obama, has warned of consequences should Mr Al Assad use the weapons, with the White House citing "contingency planning" when asked about the possibility of military intervention.

Mr Panetta restated Mr Obama's warning of consequences for Mr Al Assad yesterday, adding: "I'm not going to speculate or comment on what those potential consequences would be. But I think it's fair enough to say that their use of those weapons would cross a red line for us," he said.

In fighting yesterday at least five men were killed in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli during sectarian clashes between gunmen loyal to opposing sides in neighbouring Syria's civil war, residents said.

Ten people have now died in sporadic clashes in the city since Tuesday, the latest bout of violence that has roots in Lebanon's own 15-year civil war but which has intensified as Syria's conflict polarised Lebanese society.

Tripoli is a majority Sunni Muslim city and mostly supports the uprising in Syria but it also has an Alawite minority and street fights between Sunni and Alawite gunmen have erupted several times since the revolt began.

Meanwhile, backtracking from earlier comments, the Obama administration said it does not know the whereabouts of a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, who disappeared this week.

A state department spokesman, Mark Toner, said that US officials have seen "various reports" regarding Makdissi's location but cannot confirm any of them except that he's not in the US.

* Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Press