x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Obama calls for alternative Syria policy as peace talks falter

Thousands flee as Syria regime launches assault on town near Lebanon border.

A man carries a wounded child following an airstrike by government forces on the outskirts of Aleppo on February 14. Casualties from the country’s civil war countinue to mount as peace talks in Geneva fail to make headway. Khaled Khatib / Aleppo Media Centre / AFP
A man carries a wounded child following an airstrike by government forces on the outskirts of Aleppo on February 14. Casualties from the country’s civil war countinue to mount as peace talks in Geneva fail to make headway. Khaled Khatib / Aleppo Media Centre / AFP

President Barack Obama is seeking new policy options on the civil war in Syria, the US secretary of state John Kerry said on Friday as thousands of civilians fled a government assault on a rebel-held town and peace talks in Geneva appeared to be winding up without any breakthrough.

Mr Kerry said the US president was concerned about the deterioration in the humanitarian situation in Syria and also by the fact that peace talks between the opposition and government had not produced a discussion of a transitional government as had been planned.

“He has asked all of us to think about various options that may or may not exist. The answer to the question: have they been presented? No, they have not. But that evaluation, by necessity, given the circumstances, is taking place at this time,” Mr Kerry told reporters during a visit to Beijing.

“And when these options are ripe and when the president calls for it, there will undoubtedly be some discussion about them.”

In Geneva, Syrian government and opposition delegates said a second round of peace talks to end their country’s civil war had reached an impasse.

An opposition spokesman said the talks that opened on Monday had reached a “dead end” because of the government’s “belligerence,” while Syria’s deputy foreign minister said the opposition came to the table with an “unrealistic agenda.”

However, both sides kept the door open for more negotiations, saying the talks may continue for another day.

The opposition, which is backed by the US, wants the negotiations to focus on the formation of a transitional governing body that would administer the country until the next elections, while the government says the priority is for halting “terrorism”.

Russia, a major backer of the Syrian regime led by Bashar Al Assad, yesterday accused the United States of using the talks for the sole purpose of regime change.

“The only thing they want to talk about is the establishment of a transitional governing body,” said the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. “Only after that are they ready to discuss the urgent and most pressing problems, like terrorism,” he said in Moscow.

Mr Kerry suggested Russia was backtracking on earlier commitments and said that agreeing on a transition government was the sole purpose of the Geneva talks.

“There is no question about what this is about, and any efforts to try to be revisionist or walk back or step away from that frankly is not keeping work or keeping faith with the words that have been spoken and the intent of this conference,” Mr Kerry said in Beijing.

Mr Lavrov said the Russian-American initiative for the talks clearly said they must not have artificial time constraints or deadlines.

“Now they are saying that to keep talking is senseless because the government doesn’t want to agree about the makeup of a transitional governing body. We are going in circles,” Mr Lavrov said.

Fighting in Syria has continued unabated during the talks, although the regime last week agreed to a ceasefire in Homs to allow civilians to leave besieged rebel-held areas of the city where they have been living without access to food or medicine for almost two years.

However, the UN on Friday halted the evacuation of civilians from the city until the fate of men detained after the leaving the rebel-held areas became clear.

More than 300 males between 15 and 55 years old – of military age according to the Syrian authorities – have been held in a school the evacuees were taken to on their way out, for screening, raising fears they may be imprisoned, tortured or killed.

The move came just a day after the ceasefire was extended for three more days, the second such extension since the truce first went into effect. Hundreds more civilians are believed to still be trapped in the city.

In western Syria, thousands of people fled the town of Yabroud after it was bombed and shelled in an operation that has prompted fears of a major assault by ground troops, the UN said.

“We have received reports from within Syria that there have been numerous aerial attacks and shelling along with a military build-up around the town, suggesting a major assault by land may be imminent,” the UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said.

A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency said about 500 or 600 fleeing families had already arrived in the Lebanese town of Arsal, and a big influx across the border was expected.

Meanwhile, a car bomb killed at least 32 people in a town in southern Syria on Friday, including 10 rebel fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The bomb, which killed at least one child, went off near a mosque in the town of Al Yadouda near the border with Jordan, the Observatory said.

* With reporting from Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse