Wednesday 23 October 2019

Kerry seeks Putin's support for efforts to break Syrian deadlock

A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his weapon as he takes a break while on patrol in Raqqa province, eastern Syria
A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his weapon as he takes a break while on patrol in Raqqa province, eastern Syria

Peter Foster Washington

US Secretary of State John Kerry is to use a trip to Moscow today to try to convince Russia that it must act to break the international deadlock over Syria after President Vladimir Putin intervened directly to demand an explanation for Israeli air strikes against targets in Syria over the weekend.

Mr Kerry departed for Moscow last night after both the Russian and Chinese governments condemned the Israeli strikes. More than 100 Syrian soldiers were reportedly killed in the attacks, which sharply raised tensions in the region.

With oil prices spiking to $105 a barrel and Israel deploying additional air defence batteries to its northern border, both Britain and the US have reiterated that Russia holds the key to any diplomatic solution in the Syrian conflict.

"We certainly want to try to make another stab at it, to make another effort at it, because events on the ground have become steadily worse," said a US State Department official, ahead of Mr Kerry's departure.

"The casualty figures are mounting, the rate of killing has gone up and as the Israeli strikes show, the situation is adding to instability in the region."

Urgency

The meeting between Mr Kerry and Mr Putin represents a break in protocol, but reflects the growing urgency in diplomatic efforts to stop the Syrian crisis spinning further out of control. Diplomats hope to revive a political plan for Syria agreed in Geneva in June last year but never acted upon.

"This is a time to talk to the Russians, to understand that from our side we remain committed, and if they are as well, then we need to think about how to work operationally to make that happen," the official said. "I don't know if we will get an agreement or not, but we certainly think it is worth testing and trying to find some ways forward."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, travelling to China for a pre-planned visit, held telephone talks with Mr Putin hours after Moscow had warned that the Israeli strikes on several bases outside Damascus "sharply increased" the risk of destabilising Lebanon and Israel. China also warned of opposition to the use of military force, with a foreign ministry spokesman urging that Syria's "sovereignty should be respected".

Although Israel has not officially claimed responsibility for the strikes, Israeli officials yesterday suggested that they were aimed at stopping Hizbollah from acquiring modern guided missiles from Syria, and not at actively destabilising the Assad regime.

The Israeli military also sought to play down the risk of Syrian retaliation: "There are no winds of war," Yair Golan, the general commanding Israeli forces on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts, told reporters while out jogging with troops. "There is no tension. Do I look tense to you?"

However, in a sign of the tinderbox nature of the conflict, hours later Israeli military reported that two rockets from Syria had landed in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights but indicated that the rockets had most likely crossed the border accidentally. President Barack Mr Obama – who was out playing golf with three US senators yesterday – has defended Israel's right to block "terrorist organisations like Hizbollah" from acquiring weapons, but gave no further indication of whether he intends to respond to mounting pressure for the US to show international leadership.

The White House has claimed it is highly likely that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, not the rebel opposition, was behind any chemical weapons use in Syria.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said there was certainly evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. And on Sunday, a member of a UN panel investigating events in Syria said there were indications that rebel forces had used the nerve agent sarin. But Mr Carney questioned that claim.

"We are highly sceptical of suggestions that the opposition could have or did use chemical weapons," he said. "We find it highly likely that any chemical weapon use that has taken place in Syria was done by the Assad regime. And that remains our position." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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