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US bid to revive Syria peace plan with fresh talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) arrives on October 15, 2016 in Lausanne to meet with top diplomats in a bid to revive the ceasefire in Syria © AFP / Fabrice Coffrini

Lausanne, Switzerland, Oct 15 – Pessimistic envoys from the United States, Russia and Syria’s neighbours met Saturday in Switzerland as Secretary of State John Kerry tried to revive hopes of a ceasefire for the war-torn country.

The talks marked Kerry’s first encounter with his Russian opposite number Sergei Lavrov since a US and Russian-sponsored truce collapsed last month amid a ferocious Syrian offensive.

But diplomats from all sides warned against hopes for a rapid breakthrough in Lausanne, and Moscow showed no sign of softening its strong support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Even as the diplomats gathered in a lakefront hotel, Moscow’s flagship aircraft carrier set sail for the Mediterranean to support the Russian forces shoring up Assad’s rule.

Fierce fighting was continuing in the multi-front conflict, with Turkish-backed opposition fighters closing in on Dabiq, a symbolic stronghold of the Islamic State group.

And in Aleppo, Russian-backed government forces intensified their bombardment of the rebel-held east of the city, further damaging any prospect of a renewed ceasefire.

Kerry and Lavrov, once joint sponsors of international peace effort, met ahead of the broader talks, but US officials insisted that their “bilateral track” remains dead.

Map of Aleppo showing zones controlled by different fighting forces, with developments in the conflict and the humanitarian crisis in the rebel-held east © AFP Graphic / -, -, –

Instead, with President Barack Obama adamant that US forces will not become caught up in the war, Kerry was hoping that talks with Russia and regional powers may yield new ideas.

“We are not pursuing this directly with the Russians bilaterally any more,” a senior US official travelling with Kerry told reporters ahead of the meeting.

“But just because the format has evolved doesn’t mean that the underlying objectives have changed,” he insisted.

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Those objectives, he said, are a reduction in violence, more humanitarian access to besieged civilians and a political dialogue between the government and opposition.

But both US and Russian officials played down hopes of a breakthrough on Saturday, and Kerry was due to fly on to London on Sunday to brief European allies on the new effort.

Lavrov told reporters on Friday he had no “special expectations” of progress.

Iran also voiced scepticism, with a foreign affairs ministry spokesman saying: “I don’t think we can have a lot of a hope for the outcome of this meeting.”

Residents receive treatment at a hospital in the regime-held part of Aleppo, on October 13, 2016 © AFP/File / George Ourfalian

The talks come as Moscow faces down growing criticism over its backing for Assad’s assault in divided Aleppo.

Air strikes hit rebel-held parts of Aleppo again Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based watchdog with a network of sources on the ground.

Against this bloody backdrop, a leading opposition group slammed the talks, saying they would not stop the killing.

Abdal Ahad Stefo, deputy head of the Istanbul-based National Coalition, told AFP the negotiations “will only lead to wasting more time … and the shedding of more Syrian blood”.

– Seeking concrete steps –

Aleppo has been engulfed by some of the worst violence of the conflict since the collapse of last month’s truce deal.

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“I think we need to see what happens in the room to determine whether this is the beginning of a new process that continues in this format or not,” said the senior US official.

On Friday, Lavrov had warned that Russia was not planning on presenting new initiatives on ways to resolve the conflict, which has claimed more than 300,000 lives since 2011.

Instead he called for “concrete steps” to implement earlier UN resolutions and specifically for opposition fighters to separate from “terrorist” jihadist groups.

Residents receive treatment at a hospital in the regime-held part of Aleppo, on October 13, 2016 © AFP / Paz PIZARRO, Thomas SAINT-CRICQ

Kerry and Lavrov were joined by UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, as well as top diplomats from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — all nations that back Syrian opposition forces.

Iran, a key Assad supporter, was being represented by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Egypt, Iraq and Jordan were also set to be part of the meeting, the US official said.

The intensified bombardment has put increasing strain on rescue workers in besieged eastern Aleppo which is home to an estimated 250,000 residents.

More than 370 people, including nearly 70 children, have been killed in regime and Russian bombardment of eastern Aleppo since September 22, according to the Observatory.

Dozens of civilians, including children, have also died in rebel bombardment of regime-controlled western districts.

Buoyed by his forces’ gains in Aleppo, Assad vowed to use victory there as a “springboard” to capture other rebel bastions, in remarks published Friday.

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