Beirut: Fresh diplomatic talks to end the Syrian conflict open in Switzerland on Saturday, the first since Washington halted negotiations with Moscow earlier this month on efforts to revive a failed ceasefire.
With violence still raging in Aleppo, US Secretary of State John Kerry is due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and top diplomats from the UN and regional powers in Lausanne.
But even before the talks began, Lavrov appeared to be dampening hopes of a breakthrough with Russian news agencies on Friday quoting him as saying he had no “special expectations” for the latest diplomatic effort.
And a French diplomatic source told AFP: “When you see the results from the previous efforts, quite frankly I’m a bit sceptical about the next ones.”
But a senior US official, travelling with Kerry, told reporters that the talks were designed to explore ideas for ending the conflict, not to produce an immediate breakthrough.
“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,” he said.
With no let-up in Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s onslaught on eastern Aleppo, the sides will look at how to revive a short-lived ceasefire.
The key aim of the meeting is to pressure the US to separate moderate opposition groups from the former Al Qaida affiliate Al Nusra Front, now known as Fateh Al Sham.
“I don’t have any particular expectations,” Lavrov said on Friday in Moscow, putting a dampener on prospects for a positive outcome. “So far, we haven’t seen our partners to make any steps to get closer to fulfilling the agreements that we have.”
Moscow and Washington hammered out the agreement before it quickly crumbled last month amid the ferocious assault on the rebel-held part of the city, backed by Russian air power.
The offensive has sparked accusations of potential war crimes from the West.
Kerry and Lavrov will be joined in Lausanne by UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, along with the top diplomats of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — all backers of Syrian opposition forces.
Iran, a key supporter of Bashar Al Assad, has said its Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will take part as well.
And the US official told reporters that Egypt, Iraq and Jordan would be represented.
Over the past 48 hours, President Vladimir Putin’s Syria representative, Alexander Lavrentiev, visited Damascus, Tehran, Doha and Ankara, paving the ground for the Lausanne talks.
He is suggesting reviving serious discussions on a phased de-escalation of violence in the Syrian north, to start with Aleppo. Mirroring his boss’ view, Lavrentiev is pushing for supporting UN special envoy De Mistura, who says that Jabhat Fatah Al Sham is holding Aleppo hostage, offering to physically evacuate them from the city to ease the suffering of its civilians.
This will be Serge Lavrov’s demand at Lausanne on Saturday: “Al Nusra and Aleppo first.”
If he succeeds in expelling Al Nusra from Aleppo and quarantining them in the northwestern city of Idlib, Lavrov believes that this would eliminate the single most powerful group in the Syrian battlefield, causing a non-stop headache for the Russian-backed Syrian Army — at a high cost of human lives and collateral damage.
The Russian suggestion, however, is being strongly challenged by Saudi Arabia, which still insists that for any transition to start, Al Assad must first step down. The Saudis also believe that De Mistura and Lavrov are exaggerating the number of Al Nusra fighters in eastern Aleppo, arguing that it is much less than 900.
If Al Nusra is really the problem, they claim, then why doesn’t the UN oversee their exodus from Aleppo and then usher in the exact same number of fighters from the western-backed Free Syrian Army.
Under this formula, “radicals would be replaced with moderates” leaving Russia and the Syrian government with no pretence to continue their brutal assault on Aleppo.
Turkey, on the other hand, will push for a no-fly zone along its border with Syria, during Saturday’s talks.
This is something they have been pushing for years in order to block any attempts by the Kurds to carve out an autonomous state on their border.
The size of the zone would be around 5,000 square kilometres and would be used to insulate Turkey against the double threat of Daesh and the Kurds.
In exchange, Erdogan will look the other way as Russia helps the Syrian government retake Aleppo.
Al Assad, buoyed by the gains pro-regime forces have made in Aleppo, said he would use a victory there as a “springboard” to capture other rebel strongholds.
“It’s going to be the springboard, as a big city, to move to other areas, to liberate other areas from the terrorists,” he said in an interview with Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid published on Friday.
More than 370 people, including nearly 70 children, have been killed in regime and Russian bombardments of eastern Aleppo since the assault began, according to the Observatory.
Dozens of civilians, including children, have also died in rebel bombardments of regime-controlled western districts, according to the monitor, which compiles its information from sources on the ground.