Russia accuses West of enabling terrorists in Syria


Astana (Kazakhstan) (AFP)

Russia on Friday accused western powers of enabling terrorists in Syria, after meeting with Iran and Turkey for a new round of talks to try and broker an end to the conflict there.

The Russian, Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers had met in the Kazakh capital of Astana, and the focus of their consultations was Eastern Ghouta, an opposition enclave just outside Damascus, which the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began pounding a month ago.

The Astana meeting was to lay the ground for a summit involving the presidents of the three countries in Istanbul on April 4.

Speaking after the talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of shielding terrorists and even trying to "preserve their combat potential"

Both Moscow and Tehran back Assad, but Ankara has called for an to the siege in Eastern Ghouta, in which nearly 1,260 civilians have been killed, a fifth of them children, since it began on February 18.

UN chief Antonio Guterres has described the dire humanitarian situation in former rebel stronghold, which is facing stark shortages of food and other basic goods, as "hell on Earth".

But Lavrov said the West's view of the crisis there was "one-sided" and accused "Western colleagues" of trying to protect the terrorists and even "preserve their fighting potential."

Lavrov singled out Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group made up mostly of Al-Qaeda's ex-affiliate Al-Nusra Front which is present in Eastern Ghouta.

He claimed the group was "playing a role in a scenario directed by Western directors."

- 'Liquidate' the terrorists -

In a resolution signed by Lavrov and his counterparts, Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran and Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey -- and released by Kazakhstan's foreign ministry at the end of the talks -- the three countries vowed to "liquidate" the group and others associated with Al-Qaeda.

Lavrov also called on the international community to supply the enclave "more actively."

Eastern Ghouta was intended to be covered by a safe zones deal to reduce fighting. But the Syrian regime and Russia have used the presence there of extremist groups not party to government-rebel truce to justify the bombardment.

More than 340,000 people have been killed since Syria's brutal civil war started in 2011, spiralling into a complex conflict involving multiple world powers.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are now believed to control over 70 percent of Eastern Ghouta, from which nearly 20,000 civilians fled on Thursday alone, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Kazakhstan has hosted eight rounds of talks on Syria since January 2017 sponsored by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran, most of which featured delegations from the Syrian government and opposition.

A deal for four "de-escalation zones" thrashed out in Astana last year was credited with reducing government-rebel hostilities but was branded a failure by the United States in the wake of the assault on Eastern Ghouta.

Lavrov reprimanded the West for "attempting to undermine" the Astana talks, which have run in parallel to largely fruitless UN-led negotiations in Geneva and have been viewed as an attempt to circumvent Western diplomacy on Syria.

Rebel-backer Turkey has called for an end to the siege of Eastern Ghouta but remains embroiled in its own offensive on the northern Syrian town of Afrin that is inhabited mostly by ethnic Kurds.