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US-Russia deal on Syria still out of reach

Martial Trezzini / Pool Keystone / AFP (file photo) | US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a meeting on August 26, 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that the United States was holding up a deal on Syria at talks in Geneva with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday and said they may have to be reconvened next week.

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"We're thinking of maybe calling it a day, maybe meeting next week," Lavrov told reporters waiting for a potential deal to be announced at a press conference between the two diplomats.

Asked if Russia had approved a text of a deal, Lavrov said: "We are there, I don't know where our friends are, but I believe it's important for them to check with Washington."

Asked about Lavrov's comments, a senior US administration official said Kerry was continuing to discuss the proposals with colleagues in Washington.

"Those discussions are ongoing and when we have more to say we will."

Kerry and Lavrov have been in discussions to reach a peace deal in Syria since July, with this their third meeting in two weeks.

Senior State Department officials briefing reporters on Kerry's flight to Switzerland played down the prospect of a final breakthrough from Friday's talks, although they said "steady progress" had been made in recent weeks.

They said they believed a deal was still possible but warned that the talks could not go on forever.

Vexed question of Assad’s fate

The negotiations were focusing on clinching a ceasefire, getting humanitarian aid to civilians and starting political talks to end the five-year war that has killed more than 290,000 and forced more than half the population to flee their home.

However, the vexed question of President Bashar al-Assad's fate remains, with Western powers calling for his removal and Russia backing him.

The two powers back opposite sides in the civil war, with Moscow supporting the regime and the US behind a coalition of rebel groups it regards as moderate.

The ministers met in the familiar confines of a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva and made brief remarks to reporters about North Korea's latest nuclear test before beginning closed-door talks on Syria.

UN envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura said a successful outcome from the talks could provide a major boost towards resolving the conflict.

"[It] would have a major impact on humanitarian access, and in turn would have a positive impact on the way the political process would be relaunched," de Mistura said in Geneva.

'Back to square one'

Washington wants concrete steps from Russia to force Assad to stop bombing his own people, respect a ceasefire and lift the siege of Aleppo.

"We need to see a situation where it's clear within whatever is being agreed with the Russians that there won't be a siege of Aleppo," a senior US official told reporters.

Pro-regime forces have taken back a strategically important district on Aleppo's southern outskirts, rolling back nearly every gain from a major month-long rebel offensive there, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday.

The government advance further sealed off Aleppo's opposition-held eastern districts and regime troops backed by the Russian air force have completely encircled opposition-held neighbourhoods.

And in another major blow to the rebels, the top military commander of the Army of Conquest, the largest rebel alliance, was killed in an air strike during a meeting of the leaders of the anti-government group, Islamist sources said Thursday.

The former Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate recently renamed Fateh al-Sham, announced "the martyrdom" of commander Abu Omar Saraqeb on Twitter, in the biggest setback to the group since its formation early last year.

"Rebels are now back to square one, under an even more ruthless siege," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the observatory, told AFP.

In the besieged city, desperate civilians described a hungry battle for survival.

"This siege is much harder than the first one. During the first one, there were at least some products still in the market – now there's nothing at all," said one shopper, Omar al-Beik.

"No products, no vegetables, no sugar. Nothing. We came to buy a few things to cook and we couldn't find a thing," he told AFP.

In the nearby Al-Sakhur district, Abu Omar says he is bracing himself for more shortages.

He and his three children are surviving on rice, bulghur wheat and lentils, and have not had bread in three days.

"There's a risk that we'll be starving in two weeks," he said.

'Reducing violence'

Ahead of the Geneva talks, the US pressed Russia for a "true cessation of hostilities" against a backdrop of continued military turmoil but warned that its patience is running thin.

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter told BBC radio on Thursday there was "quite a long way to go" before a final peace deal could be struck.

Adding to the flurry of diplomatic efforts, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin also agreed to intensify efforts for a ceasefire "as soon as possible" in Aleppo, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported.

Lavrov has suggested that problems in another part of the world – namely, US sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis – may be hampering efforts between the former Cold War rivals to resolve the Syrian crisis.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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