US, Russia push for ceasefire in run-up to Syria conference
13th, January 2014
PARIS — The United States and Russia said yesterday they would push for a localised ceasefire in Syria to help build trust between the government and opposition in the run-up to peace talks in Switzerland later this month. Speaking at a press conference in Paris with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and the international mediator in Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the ceasefire “maybe” could be implemented in the city of Aleppo. The US, which backs the moderate opposition, and Russia, which is an ally of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, also discussed the possibility of a prisoner swap and improved humanitarian access for aid groups, Kerry said. The divided city of Aleppo made sense as testing ground for a ceasefire, according to Kerry, because there were “very few other groups” present on the actvist side, apart from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
He was referring to groups in Iraq and the Levant, who have supplanted the FSA in a number of Syrian battlegrounds in the past year. The US and Russia made clear they did not want any ceasefire to benefit the activists. “We do not want a ceasefire to be used by groups,” Lavrov said, adding the main objective was to get aid through to people trapped by the fighting. Al-Assad’s regime had already indicated it was prepared to ease a months-long blockade by government forces of the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital Damascus, he said. A diplomatic scramble is underway to lure Syria’s recalcitrant activists into joining the so-called Geneva II talks. The main opposition Syrian National Coalition has been demanding that al-Assad should have no role in a future transitional government as a condition for joining the talks, but is coming under pressure to attend regardless.
On Sunday, a meeting of the pro-opposition Friends of Syria grouping of 11 Western and Gulf states, including the US and Saudi Arabia, called on the coalition to finalise its delegation to the talks “as soon as possible.” A sticking point in the organisation of the talks has been whether Iran, which is accused of seconding military commanders to al Assad’s regime as well as backing the pro-Syrian Lebanese group Hezbollah, should be allowed join the conference. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week sent invitations to some 30 countries, but did not include Iran. Lavrov said both Iran and Saudi Arabia should be present and said opponents of that stance were being “ideological.” But Kerry retorted: “Iran’s participation, or not, is not a question of ideology.
No other country has its people on the ground fighting.” Iran was welcome if it accepted the outcome of the first Geneva conference in 2012, which said that a transitional government should be decided by “mutual consent” of the two sides to the conflict, he said. So far, Iran had given no indication it accepted that principle, he added. Brahimi, who is the joint peace envoy of the UN and Arab League, said the decision would be taken by the UN, Russia and the US, acting in “consensus.” Speaking in Beirut, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country was not seeking an invitation at all costs. “If we receive an invitation without any preconditions, we will participate in the Geneva II peace conference, but we won’t act in order to receive an invitation,” he said.