Pressure mounts for Syria dialogue

February 27, 2013 | By More

DAMASCUS — The parties to the Syrian war came under intense international pressure Wednesday to open direct talks to end their two-year conflict, on the eve of a Rome meeting of the Friends of Syria group.

The main opposition National Coalition, meanwhile, was preparing for a weekend gathering in Istanbul to elect a prime minister and government to run “liberated” parts of the country.

But the combatants in Syria seemed deaf to the diplomatic activity, fighting and bombarding each other near Damascus as the regime renewed its campaign to suppress the insurgency, a watchdog reported.

Initially at odds over Syria, Washington and Moscow on Tuesday sought to find common ground to end the bloodshed in a meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia, the most powerful supporter of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, this week urged his regime to start a dialogue to end the conflict that has cost at least 70,000 lives since March 2011.

After their Berlin meeting, Lavrov called on the opposition to “declare itself in favour of dialogue” when it meets various Western leaders, including Kerry, at Thursday’s crunch talks in Rome.

Describing his meeting with Kerry as “constructive,” Lavrov said Syrian regime officials had “assured” Moscow they “have a negotiating team and are ready to start dialogue as soon as possible”.

He called on the opposition also to name a negotiating team.

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Kerry — on an 11-day tour of Europe and the Middle East — had a “really serious and hard-working session” with Lavrov.

She said discussions had “focused on Syria and how we can work together to implement the Geneva agreement”, which remains hazy on whether Assad needs to step down before talks can begin.

Russia is one of the few big powers to maintain ties with Assad and, with China, has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that threatened sanctions on Damascus.

But Washington has toned down its criticism of Moscow’s perceived intransigence.

“We’ve been absolutely clear that there needs to be a political transition, and we felt that Russia could play a key role in convincing the regime… that there needs to be that political transition,” a State Department official said.

Ahead of the talks, Lavrov had blasted “extremists” who were blocking dialogue efforts.

The National Coalition cancelled a planned boycott of the 11-nation meeting in Rome after the US and Britain “promised specific aid to alleviate the suffering of our people”.

The Washington Post said Wednesday the White House was considering a major policy shift to supply rebels with “non-lethal” aid including body armour, armoured vehicles and perhaps even military training.

In Istanbul on Saturday, the Coalition is to appoint the head of an interim cabinet in a secret ballot, the first of its kind since the uprising erupted.

The names of at least five candidates are already circulating, including Burhan Ghalioun, the former head of the Syrian National Council, one of the main components of the umbrella Coalition.

Others include Osama Kadi, an economist and long-time dissident, and former prime minister Riad Hijab, who defected in mid-2012.

On the ground, fierce battles rocked towns near Damascus as the regime renewed its campaign to crush the insurgency around the capital, a watchdog said.

Tanks pounded the rebel-held town of Daraya southwest of Damascus, while new clashes broke out in Irbin to the northeast, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

State television said “two mortar rounds fell near the Faculty of Literature in Damascus,” without elaborating.

Six rebels were killed near the police academy in Khan al-Assal, one of the regime’s last strongholds in the northern province of Aleppo that they have been fighting to seize for the past week.

Wednesday’s violence came a day after at least 134 people were killed across Syria, including 52 civilians, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground for its information.

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Category: Arab uprising, Featured

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