Syria peace talks to start in Munich as 50,000 flee Aleppo fighting
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Foreign ministers from the US, Russia and the Syria contact group gather in Munich for a new round of Syria talks on Thursday as the Red Cross said a recent Russia-backed military offensive near Aleppo province had displaced some 50,000 people.
“It is estimated that around 50,000 people have been displaced, mainly in northern areas of Aleppo province, due to the recent upsurge in fighting. Some supply routes, used for bringing in aid, have been cut,” the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement released Wednesday.
The recent Aleppo offensive has stalled attempts to relaunch peace talks in Geneva, but attempts at reopening a diplomatic initiative will get under way on Thursday with foreign ministers of the US, Russia and the 17-nation Syria contact group set to meet in Munich.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are hosting the meeting, billed as a moment of truth for the floundering peace process.
As pro-regime forces pushed around the suburbs north of Aleppo city, sparking fears of a regime encirclement, the ICRC has warned of a humanitarian disaster. "The temperatures are extremely low and, without an adequate supply of food, water and shelter, displaced people are trying to survive in very precarious conditions," said from Aleppo Marianne Gasser, the ICRC head in Syria.
Tens of thousands of displaced Syrians have massed at Turkey’s southern border since the latest onslaught began earlier this week, prompting international human rights groups to urge Ankara to accept those stranded on the Syrian side of the closed border.
"Forcing people to remain in a war zone, where they risk death and injury, is no solution to the challenge of protecting Syrians fleeing their country," said a statement released by New York-based New Human Rights Watch.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Wednesday said it was building a new camp for the refugees inside Syria, and said it was unfair to ask Turkey to open its borders without pressuring Russia over its bombing.
"I find it hypocritical that some circles are telling Turkey to 'open your borders' while at the same time failing to tell Russia 'enough is enough'," Davutoglu told reporters.
Turkey is already hosting 2.7 million Syrian refugees and has refused to let a new wave into the country, leaving many sleeping in tents or out in the open.
The UN has warned that 300,000 people in eastern Aleppo city could be cut off from humanitarian aid if government forces encircle the area, a tactic used by the regime to devastating effect against other rebel bastions.
Calling for a ceasefire, UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien on Tuesday said, “The highest need and the best humanitarian response is for the bombing to stop… All bombings should stop."
Washington wants a ceasefire and humanitarian access to besieged rebel cities but has threatened an unspecified "Plan B" if talks fail, as tension mounts with Moscow over its air campaign.
"There is no question... that Russia's activities in Aleppo and in the region right now are making it much more difficult to be able to come to the table and to be able to have a serious conversation," Kerry said this week.
Peace talks between regime and rebel representatives are set to resume by February 25.
Russia proposes March 1 ceasefire
Russia, meanwhile, has proposed a March 1 ceasefire in Syria, US officials told the Associated Press Wednesday, but Washington believes Moscow wants to use the interim period to continue to target moderate rebel groups with the aid of the Syrian regime. The US countered with demands for the fighting to stop immediately, the officials said.
The US officials weren't authorised to speak publicly about private diplomatic discussions in the run-up to the Munich conference and demanded anonymity. One said the US can't accept Russia's offer because opposition forces could suffer irreversible losses in northern and southern Syria before the ceasefire ever takes hold.
The officials said the US counterproposal is simple: A ceasefire that is effective immediately and is accompanied by full humanitarian access to Syria's besieged civilian centres.
Kerry, who arrived in Germany Wednesday, had talks planned late in the evening with UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura and Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, a key backer of Syria's rebel groups.
The Obama administration has been trying for months to clinch a ceasefire and pave the way for a transition government in Syria that would allow parties to the conflict to concentrate on defeating the threat posed by the Islamic State group and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
But after having long demanded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ouster, the shift in the US focus to combating terrorism has resulted in a confusing mix of priorities and a layered strategy in Syria that few understand, and even fewer see working. Beyond Russia, the administration has often struggled to keep its own allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia in line.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)