VIENNA, May 17, (Agencies): Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said on Tuesday that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did not abide with efforts to establish a truce across Syria country, alternatives would need to be looked at. “We believe we should have moved to a ‘Plan B’ a long time ago,” Adel al-Jubeir told reporters after a meeting of foreign governments in Vienna. “The choice about moving to an alternative plan, the choice about intensifying the military support (to the opposition) is entirely with the Bashar regime. If they do not respond to the treaties of the international community … then we will have to see what else can be done.”
Major power foreign ministers failed to agree a new date to resume Syrian peace talks at a meeting on Tuesday, and the opposition said it would not come back to Geneva negotiations unless conditions improved on the ground. A pessimistic atmosphere pervaded the meeting in Vienna between countries that support President Bashar al-Assad and his enemies, all of which have committed to reviving a ceasefire and peace process that have been unravelling since last month.
In a joint statement after the meeting attended by the United States, European and Middle East powers that oppose Assad as well as Russia and Iran which support him, the powers called for a full cessation of hostilities and access for aid. In stronger language than in the past, they warned the warring factions that if they repeatedly broke the truce they risked foregoing the protection of the Feb 27 cessation of hostilities agreement sponsored by Washington and Moscow. They also directed the U.N.’s World Food Programme to air drop food, medicine and water to besieged communities starting on June 1 if humanitarian access was denied by either side.
But they did not agree on a date for peace talks to resume. The Geneva talks broke up last month after the opposition delegation quit, accusing the government of ignoring the ceasefire, and recent weeks saw an intensification of fighting, particularly near Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told a news conference there was still a strong desire to keep the peace process moving. “We want to keep the momentum. The exact date I am not at the moment revealing it because it will depend also on other facts,” he said. He noted that the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins in early June, was coming soon.
The main opposition High Negotiations Committee said it was not willing to return to negotiations without a full ceasefire and access for humanitarian aid. “I don’t think there will be results, and if there are any results they will not be sufficient for the Syrian people,” HNC chief negotiator Asaad al-Zoubi told Reuters ahead of Tuesday’s Vienna meeting.
“We are used to the fact that Russian and US foreign ministers are taking the world into an unknown direction,” he said. “The HNC has said that if aid does not reach everybody, if the sieges aren’t lifted and if a full truce does not happen, there will be no negotiations.” Washington, which wants Assad to leave power, has worked closely on diplomacy with Russia, which joined the war last year to support him. That has alarmed some of Assad’s opponents and raised doubts among some of the countries that support them.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, standing beside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and de Mistura at a news conference, made clear Washington still wanted Assad out. Russia needed to use its influence over Assad to secure a transition in Syria, Kerry said. “This war will not end for him or for his people without a political settlement.” Gesturing to Lavrov, Kerry said Assad had made a series of commitments to Moscow that he was prepared to negotiate, but had not kept his word.
“I think he should never make a miscalculation about President Obama’s determination to do what is right at any given moment of time where he believes he has to make that decision,” Kerry said. Lavrov repeated Moscow’s line, that it was not fighting on behalf of any particular ruler in Damascus: “We don’t support Assad. We support the fight against terrorism.” France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said progress was needed urgently on the ground.
“If nothing happens in terms of respecting the ceasefire or humanitarian aid, then it will no longer be about discouragement, but despair. We are in an extremely fragile period.” The United Nations said this month that Syria’s government, which has been on the front foot in the war since its ally Russia intervened last year, was refusing U.N. demands to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of people. Tuesday’s talks discussed ways to stop the violence by separating al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria, from other opposition fighters in some areas like Aleppo.
Ayrault said France had told moderate opposition groups “they must be extremely clear with regard groups like al-Nusra. There must be no ambiguity.” Nusra, along with Islamic State, is not party to the ceasefire. Western and Arab states accuse the Syrian government and Russia of using links between rebels and Nusra as a pretext to launch offensives against other opponents of Assad.
De Mistura is trying to meet an Aug 1 deadline to establish a transitional authority for the country that would lead to elections in 18 months, as agreed in a December United Nations Security Council resolution. Kerry said in Vienna that if progress in talks was made the timeframe would be respected. However, the US administration’s failure to convince Moscow that Assad must go is fuelling European and Arab frustration at being sidelined in efforts to end the country’s five-year civil war, diplomats say.
In the past weeks, several hundred civilians have been killed in air strikes and rebel bombardments in Aleppo province alone, while fighting has taken place in other parts of Syria, including Idlib, Deir al-Zor and around Damascus. As the talks took place, rebel fighters and officials in the besieged town of Daraya on the outskirts of Damascus said they believed government forces were preparing an assault.
Last week government forces refused entry to what would have been the first aid convoy to reach the town. Troops began shelling the town on Thursday, ending a lull that had prevailed since the ceasefire took effect. Residents say they are on the verge of starvation. “Large convoys of (government) troops are moving from the airport and from Ashrafiyat Sahnaya (the next town south),” said Abu Samer, spokesman for the Liwa Shuhada al-Islam rebel group.
“We are prepared to repel their assault but our main fear is for the civilians besieged in the town who face severe shortages of food.” A Syrian military source denied rebel accounts of troop deployments, saying nothing had changed in the area. The blocked aid convoy was not allowed to contain food, only medical and other aid, and residents launched an online campaign ahead of the expected delivery with the slogan: “We cannot eat medicine”.
At least 50 fighters and two civilians were killed Tuesday in clashes between rival anti-regime groups east of Syria’s capital, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The powerful Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam, has been locked in clashes with rival factions led by al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate in the opposition stronghold of Eastern Ghouta. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said nearly three weeks of fighting had killed more than 500 fighters and a dozen civilians.
One of the slain civilians has been identified as the only specialist gynaecologist still practising in Eastern Ghouta. “This is absolutely a power struggle,” Abdel Rahman told AFP. Eastern Ghouta is the largest rebel bastion in Damascus province, and Jaish al-Islam had long been dominant in the district. The Saudi-backed faction is one of the key rebel players in the High Negotiations Committee, which represents Syria’s opposition in UN-backed peace talks. But Jaish al-Islam has recently been challenged by Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Fustat, both led by Al-Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.