Kerry sees hope of extending Syrian truce to Aleppo

Escalating violence in northern city threatens to derail first peace talks involving warring parties

Despite several days of deadly attacks, US Secretary of State John Kerry says he is hopeful that he and other parties can extend a truce to the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo.
Video captured on CCTV appears to show the impact of last week's air strike on a hospital in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, which killed more than 50 people.

AMMAN/GENEVA • US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday said talks were moving closer to extending a Syrian truce to Aleppo, the divided northern city where a sharp escalation of violence in recent weeks has torpedoed peace talks.

Mr Kerry was in Geneva for talks with other dignitaries to try to revive the first major ceasefire of the five-year Syrian war, which was put in place in February with US and Russian backing and has since all but collapsed.

Syria announced a temporary local truce in other areas last week but has so far failed to extend it to Aleppo, where government air strikes and rebel shelling have killed hundreds of civilians, including more than 50 people in a hospital that rebels say was deliberately hit.

The Aleppo fighting threatens to derail the first peace talks involving the warring parties, which are due to resume at an unspecified date after breaking up last month when the opposition side walked out.

"We're getting closer to a place of understanding, but we have some work to do, and that's why we're here," Mr Kerry said at the start of a meeting with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

After meeting Mr Jubeir and UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, Mr Kerry said he hoped for more clarity in the next day or so on restoring the nationwide ceasefire. The US and Russia have agreed to keep extra staff in Geneva to work on it.

"Both sides, the opposition and the regime, have contributed to this chaos, and we are working... to try to restore the cessation of hostilities," Mr Kerry said. Mr de Mistura would be going to Moscow for talks.

The civil war in Syria has killed hundred of thousands of people, driven millions more from their homes, created the world's worst refugee crisis and provided a base for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants.

The fighting has drawn in global powers and regional states, while all diplomatic efforts to resolve it have foundered over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, who refuses to accept opposition demands that he step down.

The United States and Russia have taken the leading roles in the latest diplomatic initiative, which began after Moscow joined the war last year with an air campaign that tipped the balance of power in favour of Mr Assad, its ally.

So far, Syria has announced a "regime of calm" - a temporary local truce - in the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus and the countryside of northern Latakia province, from Saturday morning. The Latakia truce was for three days and the Ghouta truce, initially for 24 hours, was also extended by another 48.

Both are areas where there has been heavy fighting, but Aleppo remains the biggest prize for Mr Assad's forces, who are hoping to take full control of the city, Syria's largest before the war. The nearby countryside includes the last strip of the Syria-Turkish border in the hands of Arab Sunni rebels.

A Russian military official, General Sergei Kuralenko, said talks were under way on extending the regime of calm to Aleppo.

The opposition accuses the government of deliberately targeting civilians in rebel-held parts of Aleppo to drive them out, while the government says rebels have been heavily shelling government-held areas, proving that they are receiving more sophisticated weaponry from their foreign supporters, which include Arab states and Turkey.

Mr Jubeir, the Saudi Foreign Minister, blamed the latest escalation on the government, condemning it as a "violation of all humanitarian laws" and calling for Mr Assad to step down. "He can leave through a political process, which we hope he will do, or he will be removed by force," Mr Jubeir said, alongside Mr Kerry.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Kerry sees hope of extending Syrian truce to Aleppo'. Print Edition | Subscribe