The US and Russia set an August deadline for a deal to end Syriaâ€™s five-year war as they agreed to try to push forward negotiations between the government and opposition that remain deadlocked over the fate of Russian ally President Bashar Al Assad.
â€œWe will accelerate the effort to try and move the political process forward,â€ US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a Kremlin news conference after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin for four hours.
Lavrov said Russia is committed to promoting a political transition in Syria, though it must be based on â€œmutual consentâ€ in line with international agreements on resolving the crisis. â€œWe have agreed that the pressure on all the sides must be increased,â€ he said.
The United Nations-sponsored talks in Geneva mark the most serious effort yet to end the war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people. The conflict has sparked a refugee exodus to Europe and given IS a safe haven from which to expand across the region and plot terror attacks such as this weekâ€™s bombings in Belgium. The attacks that killed 31 and injured 270 in Brussels, the worst in Belgiumâ€™s history, have given an added sense of urgency to efforts to end the Syrian crisis.
Russia and the US, which brokered a partial cease-fire last month, agreed at the talks to step up efforts to cement the truce and other measures aimed at supporting the peace process. These include urging the government and opposition to start discussing details of a political transition and enter into direct talks. The two countries also called for expanded humanitarian access and for both sides in the conflict to start freeing detainees. The US and Russia will push for an agreement on a â€œframework for a political transitionâ€ and a draft constitution by August, Kerry said. â€œI believe Russia is fully engaged in this effort, and all of us are going to try and get President Assad to make the right decision in the next few days to engage in a political process that results in a genuine transition and in peace for Syria.â€
Putin last week ordered the partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria after more than five months of airstrikes in support of Assad that helped tip the balance in the conflict with rebels. The pullout gave a â€œnew impetusâ€ to the negotiations between the government and opposition, according to the UN.
Assad has so far refused to present an alternative to opposition proposals for a political transition at the peace talks, which include a demand for his resignation. Syrian authorities have indicated that they will accept only a limited role for the opposition in a national unity government, and that discussing the possibility of Assad stepping down is a â€œred line.â€
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, published a document listing a dozen joint principles between the government and opposition as a basis for political transition. They include maintaining the unity of Syria, a democratic and non-sectarian state, the continuity and reform of state institutions, and the disarmament and integration of armed groups into a unified national army. The Geneva talks adjourned Thursday after more than 10 days and are due to resume in April.
Putin discussed the Syrian peace process with Abu Dhabiâ€™s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is deputy supreme commander of the UAEâ€™s armed forces, at a meeting in Moscow on Thursday. The UAE is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, which wants Assad to leave office. The crown prince also met Kerry in the Russian capital. Russia is ready for dialogue with the Saudi-backed Syrian oppositionâ€™s High Negotiations Committee and has invited it to Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said.
The US and its allies are counting on Russia to come to the realization that itâ€™s better to try to preserve the Syrian state than Assadâ€™s rule at all costs, a Western diplomat in Geneva said. A transitional government has to mean that Assad has no powers even if he remains formally in office, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the deliberations are confidential.
Russia has managed to convince the US to put aside the question of Assad for the moment in order to enable the Syrian peace talks to get under way, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, Interfax reported. Major powers endorsed a road-map in November that would establish a transitional ruling body with full executive authority in Syria of government and opposition members within six months. This would lead to internationally supervised elections under a new constitution a year later.
â€œWe have a unanimity about the vision of how we can achieve peace in Syria,â€ Kerry said, describing the Moscow talks as â€œproductive.â€