Fresh push to revive ceasefire in Syria

Talks by top diplomats mark first attempt at deal since collapse of US-Russian truce

LAUSANNE (Switzerland) • Top diplomats were to meet in Switzerland yesterday in a fresh push to revive a ceasefire in Syria, after pro-government forces intensified their bombardment of the battered city of Aleppo.

With Washington and Moscow backing opposite sides in the five-year war, the talks in Lausanne brought together US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with top diplomats from the UN and regional powers including Iran.

Along with Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov, Saudi Arabia's Adel al-Jubeir, Iran's Mohammad Javad Zarif, Egypt's Sameh Shukri, Qatar's Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani and Turkey's Mevlut Cavusoglu were expected to attend, marking the first attempt at diplomacy since a US-Russian ceasefire collapsed last month.

That deal, hammered out over months of negotiations, lasted only a week and led to an immediate increase in bombing of Aleppo.

Some of the participants, including Mr Lavrov, Mr Kerry and Mr Jubeir, began bilateral talks ahead of the main session in the afternoon.

Russia has said Syria is willing to examine a United Nations proposal for safe passage out of opposition-held eastern Aleppo for Al-Qaeda fighters who are intermingled with American-backed rebels.

The US says the meeting should mainly focus on Russia and Syria halting their bombing of the country's former commercial capital, where 250,000 are trapped, to allow humanitarian access.

Both sides have played down hopes of a breakthrough, with Mr Lavrov telling reporters on Friday he had no "special expectations" of progress, while a senior official in Mr Kerry's entourage said the aim was to explore ideas for ending the fighting.

Intense air strikes hit rebel-held districts of east Aleppo again yesterday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group with a network of sources on the ground.

Some believe Russia could be playing for time in a bid to solidify its positions ahead of the US presidential election, now only weeks away.

Meanwhile, the US is examining ways to provide more weapons to opposition fighters via allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, according to a US administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Following the meeting in Lausanne, Mr Kerry will head to London for a meeting with key allies today to discuss Syria.

For his part, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Aleppo is an important springboard in the campaign against the rebels, according to an interview in English published on Friday in Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

The remaining rebel stronghold of Idlib, about 60km south-west of Aleppo, would be the next objective, he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'Fresh push to revive ceasefire in Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe