Kerry, Lavrov 'to meet' as Syrian opposition unveils transition plan
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After five years of bloodshed and more than a quarter of a million dead in Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry will once again meet Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Thursday to try and secure a peace plan.
The pair's last meeting was only on Monday and this trip will be the latest in a series since Russia's military intervened in Syria last year.
Washington hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin will back a deal to restore the ceasefire that the UN Security Council had already endorsed in February, only for it to fall apart.
But critics of US President Barack Obama's administration say Kerry has gone into the negotiation with little in the way of leverage, giving Moscow the upper hand.
"It's a very simple situation," James Jeffrey, a former senior diplomat and deputy national security advisor to president George W. Bush, told AFP.
"As Kerry has often said, he needs a Plan B. He was never given a Plan B by the president," said Jeffrey, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
US officials have never publicly confirmed what Kerry had in mind when he floated the idea of a Plan B for Syria in Congressional hearings earlier this year.
But dissident US diplomats signed a letter calling for deeper American military involvement in the conflict, to force Syria's Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table.
Obama, elected on a vow to bring an end to the Bush-era war in Iraq, has been loath to be sucked even deeper into the conflict, leaving Kerry's diplomatic track the only option.
Kerry is trying to persuade Russia to force Assad to observe a ceasefire in return for closer US-Russian cooperation against the Islamic State group and the Al-Nusra front.
Then, with no barrel bombs falling on besieged civilian communities and the jihadist groups on the back foot, a UN-mediated political settlement might be possible.
But in theory much of this was already agreed by the 23-nation International Syria Support Group, chaired by Kerry and Lavrov, and adopted by the UN Security Council.
Any new deal, US officials admit, will be less than the failed nationwide cessation of hostilities and talks on a political transition that Moscow has already accepted.
Nevertheless, Kerry meets with Lavrov several times a month.
Hopes were raised when the pair saw each other at the G20 in Hangzhou, China on Sunday and then again on Monday.
‘We’re just continuing to work on it’
“We're not there yet," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a briefing. "The secretary remains committed to continuing efforts to try and resolve the outstanding issues in order to reach an arrangement on Syria ... but we won't agree to an arrangement that does not meet our core objectives."
"We have not been able to reach a clear understanding on a way forward," he added. "I can't say there is a big hope for success, we're just continuing to work at it."
Washington's allies in the region, led by Saudi Arabia, have long been sceptical or even hostile to the outreach to Russia – seeing it as handing a lifeline to Assad.
Now even Western officials are rolling their eyes at the diplomatic to-and-fro, complaining that Kerry seems to have put too much stock in his negotiating talent.
One Western diplomat said: "Something is not working, when you see all the hours of talks between Kerry and Lavrov and compare that to the results.
"You can't just go into talks declaring 'I want a deal at any price,' even if you think it," he complained.
Syrian opposition comes up with ‘transition plan’
While the US and Russia remain deadlocked, the broad-based Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) proposed – during talks with its foreign allies in London – a six-month negotiating phase with the regime.
The opposition hopes the talks would result in an 18-month transition that would see Syria governed by a transitional body made up of opposition figures, current government representatives and members of civil society, according to a 25-page blueprint.
The HNC and its predecessors – weakened by years of conflict, regime advances, the spread of jihadists and what some have branded a disconnect from the grim reality on the ground – have made similar calls since early in the conflict.
Its proposal came even as armed rebels faced enormous pressure on the ground, particularly around Aleppo, where regime forces backed by the Russian air force have completely encircled opposition-held neighbourhoods.
The group's plans are largely in line with existing international proposals for a post-war Syria, although unlike a 2015 agreement hashed out in Vienna, they are clear about Assad's future.
'No role' for Assad
A transition, the HNC says, "shall require the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his clique who committed heinous crimes against the Syrian people."
The group's leader Riad Hijab, who spoke in London ahead of the talks, insisted that regime leaders who killed Syrians "cannot have a role in the future of Syria and in this transitional phase at all".
Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister who defected to the opposition in 2012, blamed the failure of previous rounds of peace talks on "a refusal to talk about the political transition".
In an article in Wednesday's edition of The Times, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who hosted the HNC talks, urged Russia to cease support for the Syrian president.
Johnson accused Assad of "barbaric military tactics" in the ongoing conflict and criticised Russia's "seemingly indefensible conduct" in backing him.
"The entire international community is committed, at least in principle, to getting rid of the Syrian dictator. Even the Russians have accepted that there must be political transition," he wrote. "But then the Russians are also employing their military muscle to prevent him from losing and to keep him in power."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)