Russia raises specter of 'world war' in high-stakes Syria talks

Targeting rebel groups fighting for the ouster of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russian forces continued to broaden their air campaign.

A Syrian child receives treatment at a make-shift hospital, following a reported airstrike by Syrian government forces on the rebel-held town of Douma (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
A Syrian child receives treatment at a make-shift hospital, following a reported airstrike by Syrian government forces on the rebel-held town of Douma
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
NEW YORK – Efforts to broker a cease-fire in Syria are under way in the German city of Munich, where Western powers are hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough despite a concerted and increased Russian military effort to pursue a military solution to the conflict there.
Targeting rebel groups fighting for the ouster of embattled President Bashar Assad, Russian forces continued to broaden their air campaign this week, making gains in the country’s north and threatening to circle Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. A coalition of Russian, Iranian and Assad forces conducted a series of operations north, east and south of the city that appear to set conditions for a siege.
A besieged Aleppo would create an acute humanitarian crisis on a scale greater than any yet seen in the five-year civil war, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein warned as the military operation continued to unfold.
“The warring parties in Syria are constantly sinking to new depths,” Zeid said. “Women and children, the elderly, the wounded and sick, the people with disabilities are being used as bargaining chips and cannon fodder.”
Already, 30,000 Syrians have fled the city in fear of a pending assault for Turkey’s border, with over 300,000 remaining behind as the city is threatened with a full encirclement. They join 120,000 trapped without aid in the region of Homs, UN officials said.
The Pentagon on Wednesday accused Russian forces of bombing two hospitals in the region, while Moscow claimed that, for the first time, US planes conducted operations around the city in rebel defense.
In Munich, German Foreign Minister Frank Walter-Steinmeier discussed the negotiations with a sense of urgency. “We need something like a breakthrough here. “If we don’t succeed in breaking the spiral of violence and counter-violence now, this terrible civil war will drag on even longer.”
That, in fact, may be the goal of warring parties currently securing gains on the battlefield: Moscow, Damascus and Tehran, each with its own motivations to continue the war and beat down rebel groups that began a revolution against Assad in the spring of 2011.
Russian officials in Munich said they had offered the US-led coalition against Islamic State a ceasefire proposal that would allow their bombing campaign against rebels to continue for an additional three weeks, until March 1.
“We made proposals on implementing a cease-fire, quite specific ones,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. “We are waiting for a US response before putting them before the International Syria Support Group.”
The ISSG, consisting of 20 countries, has agreed in principle to a road map for an end to the conflict.
That plan begins with an organized cease-fire, and ultimately, with a negotiated political transition and nationwide elections.
But as Assad gains ground, his benefactors see less of an incentive to negotiate his exit – a nonnegotiable condition for backers of Syria’s rebels including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Syrian opposition groups are fractured and their leadership remains disheartened after negotiations this month began without the delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas. Initial “proximity” talks between opposition and Assad delegations recessed within hours until the end of the month.
Entering talks with Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the Obama administration seeks an “all or nothing” cease-fire that reflects the goals of a UN Security Council resolution passed in December. That resolution, numbered 2254, calls for a nationwide cease-fire, the end of Assad’s use of indiscriminate barrel bombs on civilian areas and unfettered access for UN humanitarian convoys.
“We’re going to have a serious conversation about all aspects about what’s happening in Syria,” he said. “Obviously, at some point in time, we want to make progress on the issues of humanitarian access and cease-fire. We will talk about all aspects of the conflict.”
Obama administration officials seek a cease-fire in the country’s north and west, between Assad and rebel forces, that would allow world powers to focus their attention on the fight against Islamic State and al-Qaida terrorists in the country’s east and south.
But Riyadh and Ankara have vested interests in both wars, and now are threatening action that will further militarize the conflict.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday said that a humanitarian corridor, protected by a no-fly zone, is an absolute necessity on Syria’s northern border.
“We will show patience up to a point and then we’ll do what’s necessary,” Erdogan warned in a speech in Ankara. “There is a chance the new wave of refugees will reach 600,000 if air strikes continue. We are making preparations for it.”
In Riyadh, Saudi officials said a recent decision to send ground troops to the fight was “irreversible and “final,” but said it would be in conjunction with the US-led coalition against Islamic State.
“Today, we are committed to go with the coalition, to work with the coalition to defeat Daesh,” said Saudi Arabia’s Brig.-Gen.
Ahmed al-Assiri. “Today we know there is no one combating Daesh in Syria, in spite of the presence of Iranians there.”
The foreign ministers of both Iran and Saudi Arabia attended a ISSG roundtable in Munich Thursday, which focused on ending sieges and flirted with the potential for a cease-fire. Various Western officials expressed equal parts optimism and pessimism throughout the day, as the negotiations remained delicate and the outcome far from clear.
“The Americans and our Arab partners must think well: Do they want a permanent war?” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper.
“All sides must be compelled to sit at the negotiating table,” he said, “instead of unleashing a new world war.”