Amid Syria’s violence, diplomats produce ideas but no truce
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The United States, Russia and seven other would-be Syria mediators ended a 4½-hour meeting Saturday without agreement or concrete steps to match what America’s top diplomat described as the urgent crisis in the city of Aleppo.
Instead, the envoys said only that new ideas were proposed and more discussions planned.
The lackluster result from the gathering in Switzerland highlighted the world’s inability to find a peaceful path out of a conflict that has killed as many as a half-million people, contributed to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II and created a vast space of instability that the Islamic State group has exploited.
With the Syrian and Russian governments pressing an offensive against rebel-held parts of Aleppo, no one predicted a breakthrough. Yet after last month’s collapse of a cease-fire and even U.S. charges of Russian war crimes, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s portrayal of the result as "exactly what we wanted" sounded unconvincing.
“Nobody wants to do this in a sloppy way,” Kerry said of his new diplomatic effort, no longer between just Washington and Moscow but designed to include all the major international players in Syria’s civil war. Saturday’s talks included top envoys from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.
Kerry said the discussion was driven by the "urgency of Aleppo, the urgency of trying to find something that works other than military action". Ministers offered suggestions that “really might be able to shape some different approaches,” he said, without going into detail.
No official news conference or joint statement followed the meeting. Kerry said contacts, but not necessarily a meeting, would start anew next week.
Days of deadly airstrikes in Aleppo prompted Kerry last month to end bilateral U.S.-Russian engagement on Syria, including discussions over a proposed military alliance against IS and al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria. Last week he accused Russia of war crimes for targeting hospitals and civilian infrastructure in Syria.
Nevertheless, Kerry reunited with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the lakeside Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, speaking with the Russian for almost 40 minutes before the larger gathering. For all the talk in Washington about a possible Plan B, U.S. hopes for diplomatic progress appeared to rest squarely on Russia’s cooperation.
“There are a few ideas we discussed today in this circle of countries that can influence the situation," Lavrov told Russian news agencies. "We agreed to continue contacts in the next few days aiming at agreements that could advance the settlement. We spoke clearly in favor of a quick launch of a political process.”
Residents of opposition-held eastern Aleppo have faced daily violence as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government seeks to take full control of the country’s largest city.
On Saturday, Syrian and Russian airstrikes hit several rebel-held neighborhoods amid clashes on the front lines in Syria’s largest city and onetime commercial center, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective. Also, opposition fighters backed by Turkish airstrikes launched an offensive to try to capture Dabiq from IS, which confers special status to the northern Syrian town in its ideology and propaganda.
In another sign that Turkey and Russia have repaired relations since last year’s Turkish downing of a Russian plane, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu appeared to endorse Russia’s position on the significance of U.S. and Turkish-backed opposition forces separating themselves from al-Qaida-linked militants. Russia has said it wants a cease-fire, but cannot do so while extremists continue to embed themselves with other rebel groups to take advantage of lulls in the fighting.
“There was no resolution on the cease-fire,” Cavusoglu acknowledged. He said talks would continue.
Despite fiercely criticizing Syria and Russia, the United States doesn’t seem to have an answer.
President Barack Obama and the Pentagon have made clear their opposition to any U.S. military strikes against Assad’s military. The U.S. is uneasy with providing more advanced weaponry to the anti-Assad rebels because of their links to extremist groups. Sanctions on Moscow are seen as unlikely, given their limited impact after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory in 2014 and the weak appetite among America’s European partners for such action.
Underscoring the lack of options, Obama directed his national security team on Friday to renew diplomatic efforts to reduce the bloodshed in Syria.
But it’s unclear how the larger format for discussions would change Russia’s calculus.
Given the collapse of several cease-fires in Syria in recent months, Washington doubts Moscow’s seriousness. And with rebel-held Aleppo poised to fall, potentially in a matter of weeks, there is deep skepticism that the Syrian and Russian governments want to stop the fighting just yet.