- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

MUNICH (AP) - The Obama administration opened a two-front campaign on Syria on Thursday with a push to end one war there and step up another.

The United States, Russia and more than a dozen other nations with interests in the Syria conflict, including Iran, gathered to try to agree on a ceasefire in the civil war that might resuscitate stalled peace talks.

The gathering occurred amid deep differences between the U.S. and Russia over the timing and conditions of the truce - and a bitter argument over who is to blame for bombing civilian areas around Aleppo, a rebel stronghold.

Diplomats trying to secure a ceasefire for the civil war in Syria appear to have fallen short of organizing a truce but could likely seal an agreement to open up besieged areas of the country to humanitarian aid, according to officials familiar with the talks. However, Syrian President Bashar Assad is not party to the talks.

Instead of an immediate ceasefire, the foreign ministers looked set to create a working group to lay out the conditions of a cessation of hostilities, the officials said.

At the same time in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter rallied new support for the fight against the Islamic State group in largely the same territory.

And a spat earlier Thursday between the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Pentagon over which country’s aircraft hit civilian targets in Aleppo complicated U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts at getting an agreement with Russia on the proposed ceasefire.

A truce is seen as critical to resuscitating peace talks between Assad’s government and the opposition. They stalled last month before really starting, due largely to gains by Assad’s military with the heavy backing of Russian airstrikes.

Russia has proposed a March 1 ceasefire. The U.S. and others see that as a ploy that only serves to give Moscow and the Syrian army three more weeks to try to crush Western- and Arab-backed rebels. The U.S. has countered with demands for an immediate stop to the fighting, allowing peace talks to resume by Feb. 25.

Neither Kerry nor Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who met hours before the larger meeting began, would predict whether an agreement was possible.

“We’re going to have a serious conversation about all aspects about what’s happening in Syria,” Kerry said as their meeting got under way. “Obviously, at some point in time, we want to make progress on the issues of humanitarian access and cease-fire. We will talk about all aspects of the conflict.”

Lavrov said Russia had made a “quite specific” proposal and “we will wait for the American response before we take it” to the larger group.

About 20 countries and groups, including the European Union, are involved in the support group.

“The future of Syria and Syrians is in our hands,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, urging an immediate cease-fire.

Salem Meslet, spokesman for an opposition group, said that “we are with the political process but we have to see the humanitarian issues are solved.”

“For us it’s important to stop the Russian aggression on the Syrian people,” he said.

Five years of conflict have killed more than a quarter-million people, created Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II and allowed IS to carve out its own territory across parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Carter tried to drum up support for accelerating the fight against the militants.

Carter said defense ministers from more than two dozen countries gave a “broad endorsement” of a refined U.S. plan for defeating IS. After a meeting at NATO headquarters, Carter told reporters that nearly all participants either promised new military commitments or said their governments would consider new contributions. He predicted “tangible gains” in Iraq and Syria by March.

“We will all look back after victory and remember who participated in the fight,” he said, appealing to coalition partners to expand and deepen their military contributions.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance agreed Thursday to deploy NATO airborne command and control aircraft in order to free up similar U.S. aircraft for the air campaign in Syria and Iraq.

In the latest developments on the ground, Kurdish fighters and their allies captured a military air base in northern Syria under the cover of coalition airstrikes. Russia said its air force had carried out more than 500 combat missions in Syria over the past week.

“For us, it’s important to stop the Russian aggression on the Syrian people,” said Salem Meslet, a Syrian opposition representative.

Syria’s Kurds have been among the most effective forces battling IS, but they have remained largely neutral in the conflict between Assad and the rebels fighting to overthrow him.

But on Wednesday, the main Kurdish People’s Protection Units launched an attack along with some Arab allies against the Mannagh military air base and captured it, according to a rebel commander and an opposition activist group. The Kurds appeared to be exploiting the chaos to expand their nearby enclave.

In Moscow, defense ministry spokesman Konashenkov said that since Feb. 4, Russian warplanes had conducted 510 combat missions and destroyed 888 “terrorist facilities” in several Syrian provinces, including Aleppo, Daraa and Latakia, where the government offensive is concentrated.

“We have not witnessed such bombardment since the revolution began,” said Abdul-Jabbar Abu Thabet, commander of a moderate faction fighting both Syrian government forces and IS. The uprising against Assad’s government started in March 2011.

• Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Lolita C. Baldor and Bradley Klapper in Washington, Robert Burns in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Munich contributed to this report.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide