Wednesday 21 February 2018

US brushes off Russia's plan for March 1 Syria ceasefire

A street hit by shelling in Aleppo's predominantly Christian and Armenian Suleimaniyeh neighbourhood (SANA/AP)
A street hit by shelling in Aleppo's predominantly Christian and Armenian Suleimaniyeh neighbourhood (SANA/AP)

The US has dismissed a proposal by Russia for a March 1 ceasefire in Syria, saying Moscow is giving itself and the Syrian government a three-week window to try to crush moderate rebel groups.

Washington countered the proposal with demands for the fighting to stop immediately, US officials said. Peace talks are supposed to resume by February 25.

The talk of new ceasefire plans comes as the US, Russia and more than a dozen other countries meet in Munich to try to halt five years of civil war in Syria.

The conflict has killed more than a quarter of a million people, created Europe's biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War and allowed the Islamic State (IS) to carve out its own territory across parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Russia says it is supporting Syrian president Bashar Assad's government as part of a counter-terrorism campaign but the West says the majority of its strikes are targeting moderate groups opposed to Assad and IS.

The most recent Russian-backed offensive, near Aleppo, prompted opposition groups to walk out of peace talks last month in Geneva, while forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee towards the Turkish border.

One US source said America could not accept Russia's offer because opposition forces could suffer irreversible losses in northern and southern Syria before the ceasefire even took hold.

The officials said the US counter-proposal was a simple ceasefire effective immediately and accompanied by full humanitarian access to Syria's besieged civilian centres.

The Obama administration has been trying for months to clinch a ceasefire and pave the way for a transition government in Syria that would allow parties to the conflict to concentrate on defeating the threat posed by IS and the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

But after having long demanded Assad's removal, the shift in the US focus to combating terrorism has resulted in a confusing mix of priorities and a layered strategy in Syria that few understand, and even fewer see working.

Beyond Russia, the administration has often struggled to keep its own allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia in line.

"We will approach this meeting in Munich with great hopes that this will be a telling moment," US secretary of state John Kerry said. His peace push coincides with defence secretary Ash Carter's attendance at a gathering in Brussels to thrash out military options with Nato partners.

Brett McGurk, the Obama administration's point-man for defeating IS - also known as Isil and Isis - said Russia's Aleppo offensive was having the perverse effect of helping the extremists by drawing local fighters away from the battle against IS and to the war against Syria's government.

"What Russia's doing is directly enabling Isil," Mr McGurk told the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee in Washington.

But the panel's top Democrat echoed some of the frustration of his Republican colleagues with the larger US strategy.

"It seems as if we're only half-heartedly going after Isis, and halfheartedly helping the (rebel) Free Syria Army and others on the ground," said Eliot Engel of New York. He urged a "robust campaign, not a tentative one, not one that seems like we're dragging ourselves in ... to destroy Isis and get rid of Assad".

Mr Kerry emphasised on Tuesday that US officials "are not blind to what is happening" and said the Aleppo battle made it "much more difficult to be able to come to the table and to be able to have a serious conversation".

But Washington has staked its hopes for an end to the five-year civil war in Syria on the peace talks and Assad's eventual departure, saying the American public has no appetite for a military solution.

To that end, the US has tempered its calls dating back to August 2011 for Assad to immediately leave power - and to get Russia on board, it will now not even say that Assad should be barred from running for re-election if and when a new Syrian constitution is drafted.

The ambiguity has emboldened Assad's supporters Russia and Iran, while upsetting American allies in the Middle East, who are frustrated by a process that appears to lock the Syrian leader in place well into 2017 and perhaps beyond.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters and their allies have captured an air base in northern Syria, according to an opposition activist group .

Abdul-Jabbar Abu Thabet, a local rebel commander in the Aleppo province, said Mannagh air base fell to the People's Protection Units, or YPG, and their allies after fierce battles.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the offensive came as planes believed to be Russian carried out 30 air strikes in the area. It said the air base and a nearby village, also called Mannagh, fell late on Wednesday.

With Syrian troops backed by Russian planes waging a major offensive between the northern city of Aleppo and the Turkish border, the Kurds appeared to be exploiting the chaos to expand their nearby enclave, known as Afrin.

Press Association

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