PARIS - Moscow and Washington made a joint call Monday for Syria’s regime and rebels to agree to ceasefires in parts of the battle-scarred country ahead of peace talks this month.
But the two countries continued to disagree on Iran’s participation in the talks, with US Secretary of State John Kerry saying Tehran needs to accept plans for a transitional government if it wants to take part.
Meeting in Paris with UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for the ceasefires to start ahead of the so-called Geneva II talks due to begin in Montreux on January 22. It was a rare pulling together of two heavyweights in the Syrian crisis, which has seen the US backing the opposition as Moscow sticks by longtime ally President Bashar al-Assad.
“We talked today about the possibility of trying to encourage a ceasefire, maybe a localised ceasefire beginning with Aleppo (in the north of Syria),” Kerry said.
“What can be done before the beginning of the conference should be done,” Lavrov said. “We are going to try to send signals to all the Syrian sides on the need for the establishment of a localised ceasefire.”
Washington and Moscow are hoping to build momentum ahead of the talks, which are seeking to revive efforts to hammer out a deal on moving to a transitional government after a nearly three-year conflict that has killed 130,000 people.
Damascus’s ambassador to Moscow said Monday that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem will also visit Russia ahead of the talks, with a diplomatic source saying the visit could take place on Thursday. Kerry and Lavrov said they also discussed possible prisoner exchanges and the opening of humanitarian corridors to bring aid to the millions affected by the conflict.
Lavrov said the Assad regime had indicated it was ready to allow access for humanitarian aid, citing the embattled Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, where thousands have been trapped by fighting. “We expect similar steps from the opposition,” Lavrov said.
The two said they hoped these issues could be sorted before the talks, but that they would not be preconditions for sitting down. “Success is defined by a good beginning,” Kerry said. But divisions remained on the role of Syria’s main regional backer Tehran, with Lavrov saying there was an “absolutely apparent need” for the participation of both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Brahimi said he also supported Iran’s involvement, but Washington has blocked efforts to extend an invitation to Tehran until it agrees to the idea of a transitional government set out in the first Geneva negotiations.
Meanwhile, the fighters of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has taken most of the town of Al-Bab in Syria’s Aleppo province after fighting with rebels, an NGO said Monday. The advance by the group in the country’s turbulent north comes after 10 days of fighting pitting moderate and opposition forces against the Al-Qaeda inspired organisation that has killed nearly 700 people.
“ISIL has seized almost complete control of the town of Al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo city,” Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP. “The sound of shooting can still be heard in Al-Bab, but it’s not clear if that is from continuing clashes or mopping up operations,” he added.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Baghdad Monday for talks with senior Iraqi officials on the war in neighbouring Syria, as Iraq grapples with its own deadly crisis. Ban, whose arrival was confirmed by Iraqi state television and the UN’s official Twitter feed, was due to meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
The talks were to concentrate on the situation in the Middle East and in particular the bloodshed in Syria, Maliki’s office said in a statement. Ban was also due to give a news conference later on Monday.