Russian intervention has left the US with little room to manoeuvre as Syria’s changing battle lines become more complex.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Moscow to try to narrow differences with Russian leader Vladimir Putin over the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in any political transition in Syria.
|Russia-US: The main differences|
– Assad’s role
Russia has been a staunch supporter of the government of President Assad. Moscow said that only Syrian people can decide the political fate of their president. In October, Assad visited Moscow in what was believed to be his first foreign trip since 2011.
The US, in August 2011, five months into Assad’s crackdown on protesters, said it was time for Assad to go. It continues to reiterate this demand. Washington says Assad is part of the problem and should not have a role in a future Syria.
– Who is a terrorist?
Russia has largely adopted the Assad’s narrative of the conflict, labelling much of the opposition groups “terrorists” and “extremists”. More recently, however, President Putin said his nation was supporting the Western-backed opposition group the Free Syrian Army, in the fight against ISIL – a claim the US said it cannot confirm.
The US backs what it calls “the moderate opposition” and provides it with communication equipment and military training.
– Security Council resolutions
Russia has repeatedly vetoed UN resolutions condemning human rights abuses committed by Assad’s army. Moscow has vetoed four resolutions on Syria, saying opposition groups should also be condemned for their share of violence.
The US says the vetoes blocked victims of atrocities from justice. Washington warned that Russia’s continued blanket use of its UN veto will jeopardise the Security Council’s legitimacy.
Kerry is expected to prepare the ground for a third round of talks of world powers on Syria, amid doubts over whether a meeting scheduled for Friday in New York will go ahead.
Moscow said that Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed in a phone call on the need for specific preconditions to be met before any new meeting, throwing the timing into doubt.
However, US state department spokesman Mark Toner said there were no preconditions to having this meeting.
Russia is one of Assad’s staunchest allies and launched a campaign of air strikes to support his forces against rebels on September 30.
It says only the Syrian people and not external powers should decide Assad’s political fate.
Speaking before Kerry’s arrival in Moscow, a state department official said Kerry would also raise concerns about Russia’s continued bombing of Syrian opposition forces instead of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an approach likely to anger Moscow.
Before the talks, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement complaining that Washington was not ready to fully cooperate in the struggle against ISIL and needed to rethink its policy of “dividing terrorists into good and bad ones”.
Kerry’s meeting with Putin follows a meeting last week in Riyadh, which agreed to unite a number of opposition groups, excluding ISIL, to negotiate with Damascus in Syrian peace talks.
While Kerry said there were still “kinks” that needed to be worked out, mainly to do with which groups should be included in peace talks, the Kremlin rejected the outcome of the Riyadh meeting, saying some of the groups were considered terrorists.
Assad himself appeared to cast doubt on the very idea of peace talks on Friday, saying he would not negotiate with armed groups that he said were backed by the US and Saudi Arabia.
The opposition groups said Assad should leave power at the start of a transitional period.
“We don’t have a full meeting of the minds yet [on Assad]. We will talk about some of the details of a transition … in the hopes of narrowing the differences between us,” a senior state department official told reporters.
Meanwhile, the Syrian army and allied forces have seized control of a sprawling military airbase near Damascus, bolstering the government’s presence in the area, which is overwhelmingly controlled by opposition forces.
The Marj al-Sultan airbase lies in the eastern suburb of Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta, and had been held by rebels for the past three years.
The capture is a rare victory for the government in an area considered an opposition stronghold. It bolsters the government’s hold over Damascus International Airport and splits rebel-held areas.
The offensive came a day after warplanes launched air raids on the rebel-held areas of Duma, Saqba and Arbeen, in the suburbs of Damascus, killing dozens of people.