Syria offers Aleppo truce

January 18, 2014 - 12:17:53 am
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem (L) attend a news conference

MOSCOW/ISTANBUL: The Syrian government, preparing for peace talks with rebels next week, handed the Russian co-sponsors of the conference a proposal yesterday for a ceasefire in Aleppo and an exchange of prisoners.

There was no response from President Bashar Al Assad’s disparate opponents, whose very attendance at the talks due to start on Wednesday in Switzerland remained in doubt — prompting an appeal from the United States, which tried to assure them that negotiations would lead to Assad’s departure from power.

After nearly three years of war, and over 100,000 deaths, however, Assad’s forces have been making gains, helped by in-fighting among the rebels as well as support from Iran and new arms and equipment from Russia.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Moualem, visiting Moscow, said he gave Russian officials a plan for a truce in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, where government forces have been unable to dislodge rebels over the past year. He also said Damascus was ready to exchange prisoners, something rebels want.

Moscow and Washington, which respectively protected and opposed Assad since the uprising in 2011, have urged both sides to make concessions, including ceasefires, access for aid and prisoner exchanges, to build confidence before the conference.

But there is little sign of coherent negotiating positions - nor of violence abating. Rebels are fighting each other, in battles involving Islamist militants whose influence has cooled Western support for the uprising. Assad’s forces, once reeling, have recovered and have been bolstered lately by new Russian arms and supplies, sources said.

Most of the disparate rebel forces fighting inside Syria have dismissed the negotiations, known as Geneva-2.

Exile opposition leaders in the National Coalition, which is backed by Western and Arab powers, began a delayed meeting in Turkey yesterday to decide whether to take part. It remained unclear how or when they would reach a final decision, however.

“The outcome is finely balanced, but I expect a Yes vote,” said a Western diplomat following the talks, adding that the United States, Britain and other Western backers had told the Coalition that a No vote would have unwelcome consequences.

“We haven’t used the language of threats,” he said. “But we have made clear the decision on Geneva is a big one and it will be difficult to deliver on military and political strategy if they don’t go.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a news conference with Moualem yesterday, criticised the Syrian opposition for its delay in agreeing to take part: “It worries us very much that some kind of game is being played,” he said.Reuters