- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Obama administration escalated its demand that Russia halt its bombing campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday, a day after a major multinational push to hold peace talks aimed at ending Syria’s 5-year-old civil war struggled to get off the ground.

The U.N.-mediated peace talks in Geneva stumbled even before the major parties could meet. Syrian rebel factions said the Assad regime must end its bombardment of civilians and allow aid to flow into opposition-held areas in order for the process to move forward.

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, said the talks have not failed and a fresh attempt will be made no later than Feb. 25. But the delay this week exposed just how deep divisions are in the process between the U.S., which supports the opposition, and Russia, which has long backed the Assad regime.

State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington that Moscow’s military activity in Syria is “an indication that the regime, supported by Russia, continues to try to find a military solution to problems that really require a political solution.”

Secretary of State John F. Kerry attempted to put a more positive spin on the situation, asserting that he had found some common ground in a telephone discussion on the matter with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“We have agreed that we are engaged in a discussion about how to implement the cease-fire, specifically, as well as some immediate possible confidence-building steps to deliver humanitarian assistance,” Mr. Kerry told reporters in London.

But there are few signs that Moscow has any immediate interest in a cease-fire. Mr. Lavrov was quoted Wednesday as saying Russian airstrikes will continue in Syria until terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra are defeated, even as the peace talks struggle to get underway.

“I don’t see why these airstrikes should stop,” he told reporters, according to the independent Russian news agency Interfax.

Turkey also entered the fray Thursday, asserting that an exodus of as many as 70,000 Syrians were on the move toward its borders to escape aerial bombardments on the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said those supporting Mr. Assad’s forces were committing war crimes and called on the U.S. to adopt a more decisive stance against Moscow.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, meanwhile, said Moscow suspects Turkey is preparing for a military incursion of its own into Syria — an accusation that Ankara has dismissed.

But with Turkey having downed a Russian fighter jet in November, the prospect loomed that a wider clash between the two could emerge from the complex tensions around Syria’s multisided civil war.

Peace talks ‘collapse’

The conflict has been going on since 2011, when the Syrian military cracked down against a pro-democracy uprising. The resulting war has killed at least 250,000 people, displaced some 11 million and been exploited by the Islamic State terrorist group, which now occupies significant portions of the nation.

The Obama administration has pushed for years to build up a network of nonextremist Syrian opposition outfits and foster a peace process between them and the Assad regime that would ultimately result in the Syrian leader’s removal from power.

The process appeared to gain steam in 2014, but talks broke down at the time amid disarray among Syrian opposition leaders.

Russia, whose only Mediterranean naval base sits along the Syrian coastline, has ramped up its support for the Assad regime and in September began carrying out its own airstrikes inside Syria.

While Russian officials, including Mr. Lavrov, have more recently claimed to support the push for a peace deal, some analysts say Moscow is merely paying lip service to the Obama administration’s initiative.

“The war on the ground takes priority in Russian and regime calculations, despite repeated proclamations to the contrary,” according to an analysis by Antoun Issa, a senior editor at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. It should “not come as a surprise” that this week’s peace talks “collapsed before they had even begun.”

Helping the refugees

Since the war’s beginning, some 4.6 million Syrian refugees have fled into neighboring countries — Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt — where many are now living in makeshift humanitarian camps. Hundreds of thousands more have journeyed to Europe, spawning a refugee crisis across the continent.

At a major donor conference in London on Thursday, nations pledged to give $11 billion in aid to Syria by 2020.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said donors pledged to deliver on $6 billion of the aid this year and described the $11 billion total as the largest amount ever raised in a single day for a humanitarian crisis.

Britain pledged $1.74 billion to be spent through 2020. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under growing pressure over her open-door policy for refugees amid Europe’s biggest such crisis since World War II, pledged $2.5 billion.

U.N. agencies are appealing for $7.73 billion this year. Governments of countries in the region are asking for an additional $1.2 billion.

Mr. Kerry promised that the U.S. was prepared to offer $890 million for refugee aid efforts.

“If people are reduced to eating grass and leaves and killing stray animals in order to survive, that’s something that should tear at the conscience of all civilized people,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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