US, Russia labour over Syria truce deal but, battles rage on

Published September 5, 2016
Aleppo: Syrian soldiers gesture on Sunday at a location on the southern outskirts of this city after regime forces retook control of three military academies from rebel fighters.—AFP
Aleppo: Syrian soldiers gesture on Sunday at a location on the southern outskirts of this city after regime forces retook control of three military academies from rebel fighters.—AFP

HANGZHOU: US President Barack Obama said on Sunday that the United States and Russia were struggling to reach a ceasefire agreement on Syria as the two sides planned to meet again on Monday.

“We’re not there yet,” Obama told reporters after a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May on the sidelines of the G20 summit in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.

“We have grave differences with the Russians in terms of both the parties we support but also the process that is required to bring about peace in Syria,” he said.

On the battlefront, fighting raged. Syrian government forces and their allies scored an important victory by recapturing areas in southwestern Aleppo which rebels had seized last month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

An agreement that would stop the fighting and allow more humanitarian deliveries looked set to be announced by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Hangzhou.

Two lecterns had been set up in a room for a news conference. But Kerry emerged alone to say a couple of issues still needed to be resolved and the two sides would resume talks on Monday. He did not elaborate.

Officials from the United United States and Russia, which back opposite sides in Syria’s five-year-old civil war, have been meeting since Kerry travelled to Moscow in July with a proposal that would halt the fighting.

It would ensure that government fighters pulled back in some areas, including around Aleppo, to allow convoys of humanitarian aid to reach civilians caught in the fighting.

The ceasefire would be overseen through Russian-US intelligence sharing and military cooperation that would focus on going after the militant Islamic State group and other fighters.

The plan would need Russia to convince President Bashar al-Assad to agree on grounding his air force, a move that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said was not the goal.Kerry said he would not rush into any agreement just to see it fail again. A senior State Department official, who declined to be named, said Russia had walked back on some of issues that the sides had already agreed on, which is why both sides need to continue talking.

“If we do not get some buy-in from the Russians on reducing the violence and easing the humanitarian crisis, then it’s difficult to see how we get to the next phase,” Obama said.

The White House has said Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin likely would have the chance to talk informally on the sidelines of the G20.

Kerry said it remained to be seen whether the sides could agree on a deal.

“There are a couple of tough issues that we talked about today that we will go back and review, I will go back and review, and we’ve agreed to meet tomorrow morning and see whether or not it is possible to bridge the gap, come to conclusion on those couple of issues,” Kerry said.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2016

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