A trilateral meeting between Russia, the United States and the United Nations on Syria is scheduled to take place in Geneva on April 24, Russia’s semi-official Tass agency reports.’The meeting is tentatively scheduled for April 24 and Russia is expected to be represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov‘, agency’s source noted.
Earlier on Monday, Russia’s special envoy Syria Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said in Moscow that the meeting on Syria could be held in Geneva early next week, Washington’s confirmation is expected. “The tripartite meeting of Russia, the United States and the United Nations in Geneva is planned, we are waiting for confirmation from our American colleagues,” the Russian diplomat said, adding that the talks could be held at the beginning of the next week at deputy foreign ministers or department directors level.
The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 5, CNN reports citing an unidentified ‘senior US official’.
The intercepts were allegedly part of an immediate review of all intelligence in the hours after the attack to confirm responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in an attack in northwestern Syria, which killed at least 70 people. ‘The US did not know prior to the attack it was going to happen’, the official emphasized. The US scoops up such a large volume of communications intercepts in areas like Syria and Iraq, the material often is not processed unless there is a particular event that requires analysts to go back and look for supporting intelligence material.
So far there are no intelligence intercepts that have been found directly confirming that Russian military or intelligence officials communicated about the attack. The official said the likelihood is the Russians are more careful in their communications to avoid being intercepted.
US assesses that SAA has re-established a chemical weapons unit
The US now assesses that Syria has re-established a unit of personnel associated with chemical weapons that existed before the 2013 agreement in which the Syrian government pledged to give up its weapons inventory. And there is some indication they are getting outside help. “We know they have the expertise. And we suspect that they have help,” a US military official told reporters at a background briefing Friday. At that briefing, the official also noted, “We know the Russians have chemical expertise in-country. We cannot talk about openly any complicity between the Russians and the Syrian regime in this — in this case, but we’re carefully assessing any information that would implicate the Russians knew or assisted with the Syrian capability.” But even if there is a definitive finding of Russian complicity, it’s not clear the Pentagon or the White House would make that information public, a senior US official said. First, it would have to be ironclad proof, which could be difficult to determine. But also, the US feels right now that it has made the case that Russian support for Assad must end. For now, the official said the most specific evidence of Russian involvement remains a Russian drone that flew over the hospital that was treating people injured in the attack. The US has specific intelligence showing it was a Russian drone. While the drone operator may not have known why the aerial vehicle was flying in the area, it was a Russian-controlled asset.
The United States’ diplomatic policy on Syria for now is no longer focused on making the war-torn country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, leave power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Thursday, in a departure from the Obama administration’s initial and public stance on Assad’s fate.
The view of the Trump administration is also at odds with European powers, who insist Assad must step down. The shift drew a strong rebuke from at least two Republican senators. “You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters. “Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.” “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did,” said Haley, a former governor of South Carolina. “Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria.” On Wednesday, Haley accused Russia, Iran and the “Assad regime” of committing war crimes. She has also said the United States supports the U.N.-led Syria peace talks, that Syria could no longer be a “safe haven for terrorists” and that it was important “we get Iran and their proxies out.”
In Ankara on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s longer-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.”
A senior Trump administration official told Reuters that Haley’s remarks reflected “a measure of just realism, accepting the facts on the ground. … Assad is never going to have sufficient force to reassert control over the whole country. … Our focus is on defeating ISIS and al Qaeda and preventing Syria from being used as a terrorist safe haven.” But Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, in separate, strongly worded statements, denounced the shift in the U.S. stance. McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tillerson’s statement “overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered” by Assad’s military, Russia’s air force and Iranian-backed militias. “I hope President Trump will make clear that America will not follow this self-destructive and self-defeating path,” McCain said, adding that U.S. allies could fear a bargain with Assad and Russia “sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation.”
Graham, who like McCain is a foreign policy hawk and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said it would be a “grave mistake” to drop the removal of Assad as an objective, and would be crushing news to the Syrian opposition and U.S. allies in the region. In addition, leaving Assad in power is “a great reward for Russia and Iran,” Graham said.
Syrian opposition member Farah al-Attasi said the State Department and the White House were sending contradictory messages on Syria and should start leading and not focus exclusively on fighting Islamic State.
Britain and France reinforced their stance on Assad earlier on Thursday. French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters: “Assad is not and cannot be the future of his country.”
Robert Ford, who resigned in 2014 as U.S. ambassador to Syria over policy disagreements, said the U.S. government’s policy since late 2014 had been to focus more specifically on the fight against Islamic State as well as al Qaeda, “even if it never acknowledged that its focus on Syria had shifted.” “Ambassador Haley’s remarks just confirm that the Trump administration is following the same path,” said Ford, who is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute and senior fellow at Yale.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced concern to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday about renewed fighting and air strikes in the Syrian city of Aleppo after a break of several days, the State Department said.
Lavrov and Kerry discussed the situation in Syria in a phone call and agreed that experts from several countries meeting in Geneva would continue searching for ways to resolve the Aleppo crisis, the State Department and Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
Lavrov told Kerry the United States must fulfil its obligation to separate moderate opposition groups from “terrorists” in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The geographic proximity between moderate Syrian rebels and groups considered terrorist by Russia and the United States was one factor in the failure last month of a ceasefire negotiated by Moscow and Washington.
“They talked about the importance of the continued multilateral discussions in Geneva and how … to get a meaningful cessation of hostilities and the delivery of humanitarian aid,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said of Kerry and Lavrov. During the call, Kerry expressed concern about the renewal of air strikes and ground attacks in Aleppo by Syrian government forces and their Russian supporters after a pause in the fighting for several days, Kirby said. He noted that humanitarian aid had still not made it through to people under siege in Aleppo, despite the pause in fighting.
Asked whether the multilateral talks on Syria in Geneva had made progress, Kirby said only that the dialogue was “ongoing” and he had nothing further to report.
SAA and Hezbollah capture Bazo hill in SW Aleppo
Syrian government forces and their allies on Monday captured strategic high ground in embattled Aleppo as Russia — a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad — said it was not planning more “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting in the city’s eastern, rebel-held districts.
Fighting resumed in Aleppo over the weekend, following a days-long lull announced by Moscow that was meant to allow rebels and civilians to leave the eastern districts. The rebels rejected the Russian offer and none of the civilians left.
Government troops launched a fresh offensive and on Monday took the hilltop of Bazo on the southern edge of Aleppo, near military bases, and shelled the rebel neighborhoods, according to opposition activists. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Bazo was taken amid heavy bombardment. Both the Observatory and the Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, reported government shelling in eastern parts of the city.
A video released by the Syrian army showed tanks and cannons pounding rebel positions in the area. The state SANA news agency, meanwhile, said the rebels shelled government-held neighborhoods in western Aleppo, killing one person and wounding seven.
The rebels announce major assault to break Aleppo siege
A pro-opposition media outlet circulated footage of a powerful and hard-line Islamist rebel coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah announcing that the campaign to break the government’s siege of the city’s east would begin “within hours.”
Syrian troops have besieged rebel-held parts of Aleppo for weeks, subjecting the districts to some of the worst air raids since a cease-fire brokered by the United States and Russia collapsed on Sept. 19. Opposition activists say more than 600 people have been killed in Aleppo and neighboring villages since then.
Jaish al-Fatah commander Ali Abu Odai al-Aloush told the Qasioun News Agency that “zero hour has drawn near,” and that his militants had begun moving toward Aleppo. It was unclear when the interview was recorded.
A spokesman for the Nour el-Din al-Zinki rebel faction in Aleppo said an operation to break the government’s siege of the rebel-held eastern districts of Aleppo was “coming.” The spokesman, Yasser al-Yousef, said the rebels would not intentionally target civilians in Aleppo’s government-held districts, but warned of collateral damage from the anticipated operations.
Rebels shell West Aleppo, 3 people killed
Three people have been killed, including a seven-year-old girl, and 28 more injured after militants shelled residential areas of government-held West Aleppo on Sunday, according to Russia Today reporter Murad Gazdiev. The attacks, which targeted West Aleppo’s Hamdaniya district and Salah-Eddin neighborhood, lasted for hours, Gazdiev said, citing his sources on the ground.
The US and Britain are considering further sanctions against the Syrian government and Russia over the military siege on Aleppo, the country’s top diplomats said on Sunday after a meeting in London to discuss the conflict.
Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed the option of further military intervention in Syria, while British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said there was little “appetite” in the West for a military solution, pointing instead to sanctions against the Syrian government and its supporters.
“I think the most powerful weapon we have at the moment is our ability to make President [Vladimir] Putin and the Russians feel the consequences of what they are doing,” Johnson said.
The meeting followed Kerry’s Saturday talks in Switzerland with foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Swiss talks, which ended inconclusively, were to continue in the following week, Kerry told German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Sunday, according to the German Foreign Ministry.
The flurry of diplomacy comes weeks after a ceasefire deal in Syria collapsed and Washington suspended cooperation with Moscow over its continued bombing of Aleppo. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian media after the talks he had pressed for a “political process” to end the five-year conflict to begin “as soon as possible.” Kerry said they had talked about new ideas for a ceasefire.
Turkish-backed FSA rebels capture Dabiq
On Sunday, Syrian rebels, backed by Turkish warplanes and tanks, captured the Syrian town of Dabiq from Islamic State, which considers it symbolically important, a monitoring group reported. The advance comes a day after the rebels started a major offensive to take the town in northern Syria near the Turkish border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added. The rebels are combing the town for remnants of the militants, the Observatory added.
The rebels took control of Dabiq after Islamic State fighters were forced to retreat to other areas that are still under the radical group’s control on the outskirts of Aleppo in northern Syria, according to the watchdog. In Islamic State’s end-of-times vision, Dabiq holds great symbolic value as a site of a key battle between Muslims and a Christian army. Dabiq is also the name of Islamic State’s English-language magazine.
Eight-party Syria talks convened by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the Swiss city of Lausanne on Saturday evening failed to agree on a common strategy with Russia to end the conflict in Syria, now in its sixth year.
Kerry was seeking a new path to peace after failing to secure a ceasefire in direct talks with Moscow, one of Syria’s key backers, amid mounting international outrage over the Russian and Syrian bombardment of rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Kerry hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and seven foreign ministers from the region – from Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt – weeks after the collapse of a painstakingly crafted U.S.-Russian ceasefire plan that many saw as the last hope for peace this year.
Kerry told reporters there was consensus on a number of options that could lead to a ceasefire, but conceded that there had been some tense moments during Saturday’s talks. “I would characterize this as an example of what we wanted, which was a brainstorming and a very candid first-time discussion,” he said. “A number of ideas came from the number of different ministers as we hoped that might be able to shape some different approaches.”
But the meeting failed to come up with a joint statement or a shared vision on how to move forward.
Russian Foreign Ministry: All talks participants agreed that Syrians must decide own future
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said all participants in talks in Lausanne had agreed Syrians should decide their own future through inclusive dialogue and that the country should remain whole and secular, after the meeting ended without a breakthrough.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that in order for a U.S.-Russian ceasefire agreement to succeed and to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries, Syria’s moderate opposition must separate from Jabhat Fatah al Sham, previously known as the Nusra Front, and other “terrorist groups” affiliated with it. “At the same time, it should be understood that operations against terrorists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front will be continued,” the ministry said.
Meeting in London on Sunday
Europe was not represented at the meeting, held in a luxury hotel on Lake Geneva. But France’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Kerry and foreign ministers of like-minded nations planned to meet in London on Sunday to discuss Syria. Kerry said parties to the Lausanne talks would contact each other on Monday to follow up.
Since the breakdown of U.S.-Russia cooperation, long the backbone of efforts to end the war in Syria, U.S. officials have worked on a number of ideas. Although no breakthrough had been expected on Saturday, a senior U.S. official said before the meeting that the regional format to the talks could be the basis of a new process. However, a former Western envoy in Syria told Reuters: “I don’t understand (why) the Americans are asking the Russians to talk again. They have made zero concessions. Do the Americans believe Moscow was shaken by the break-off last week and will change behavior now?”
Separately, a Western diplomat in Lausanne said the meeting appeared ill-prepared and vague in its goals, and the list of invitees had been clarified only at the last moment. Earlier, Kerry met separately with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir and with Lavrov to discuss the logistics of the meeting.
It was the first meeting between Kerry and Lavrov since the collapse of a second attempted ceasefire in September. The impending end of the Obama administration is likely to mean a hiatus in U.S. diplomacy while his successor, whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, takes up the reins.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov returned to Syria talks on Saturday, three weeks after the failure of their painstakingly drafted ceasefire that many saw as the last hope for peace this year.
Kerry has pointedly avoided new bilateral negotiations with Lavrov, and his invitation to the Turkish, Saudi, Qatari, Iranian, Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers to join them for talks in the Swiss lakeside town of Lausanne will broaden the discussion to include powerful backers of Syria’s government and rebels. “We’ve asked countries to come, having done some thinking, about a realistic way forward given the differences represented in the room,” a senior U.S. State Department official said.
Since the breakdown of U.S.-Russia cooperation, long the backbone of efforts to end the war in Syria, U.S. officials have worked through ideas, some of which will be presented in Lausanne, the official said. “With all that said, I’m not expecting we will have some major announcement at the end of this. This is going to be, as it has been now for several years, a very difficult process,” the official added.
The new talks will not deliver an immediate solution, but could be the basis of a new process, the official said. Pressure is rising for a halt to a ferocious, three-week-old Syrian government offensive to capture the rebel-held eastern zone of the city of Aleppo, where the United Nations says 275,000 civilians still live and 8,000 rebels are holding out against Syrian, Russian and Iranian-backed forces. Western powers have accused Russia and Syria of committing atrocities by bombing hospitals, killing civilians and preventing medical evacuations, as well as targeting an aid convoy with the loss of around 20 lives.
Syria and Russia counter that they only targeting militants in Aleppo and accuse the United States of breaking the ceasefire by bombing scores of Syrian troops fighting Islamic State insurgents, over which the United States has expressed “regret”. A senior rebel commander said on Friday Syrian government forces would never be able to capture Aleppo’s eastern sector, but a military source said the operation was going as planned.
The United Nations has said food, fuel and medicine are running out in eastern Aleppo and there will be no rations to distribute from the start of next month. In a gesture of apparent desperation, U.N. Syria peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has offered to escort members of an Islamist militant group, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, out of Aleppo if that would entice Damascus to forge a ceasefire with the remaining rebels.
According to Lavrov, the key elements would be the “separation of terrorists from the so-called moderate opposition” as well as “humanitarian aid deliveries.” The start of peace talks between the Syrian government and rebel representatives without pre-conditions is another central goal, he noted. The foreign minister appeared cautious in regard to the meeting’s outcomes, saying he doesn’t “have any particular expectations.” “So far [we] can see no steps which our Western partners are undertaking to come closer to the implementation of the existing agreements,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov’s deputy Gennady Gatilov said Russia wants to discuss de Mistura’s offer, as well as elements of last month’s failed truce deal, namely humanitarian aid deliveries and a pullout of both sides’ troops from the Castello Road, a key supply route. “And it’s about time to start moving toward an inclusive political process,” Gatilov told Interfax news agency.
Many in Syria’s opposition say Kerry has put too much trust in Lavrov, with protracted diplomatic wrangling over ceasefires buying time for Russia’s military campaign and obscuring the once central question of the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the clock runs down to the U.S. elections on Nov. 8.