Syria's rebels sceptical on joint US-Russia push for peace

Kerry and Lavrov promise co-operation in pursuit of ‘significant common interests’

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry attend a joint news conference after their meeting in Moscow. Photograph: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry attend a joint news conference after their meeting in Moscow. Photograph: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Thu, May 9, 2013, 05:54

The United States and Russia have agreed to work together to seek peace in Syria, in a move hailed by the European Union and a United Nations envoy as a breakthrough but viewed with scepticism and concern by rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

After long talks in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, US secretary of state John Kerry said Russia and the US would join forces in pursuit of their “very significant common interests” in ending the bloodshed in Syria.

“What I think is significant is that we are here to say that we are going to co-operate . . . The alternative is that Syria heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos,” Mr Kerry said.

Washington has until now backed rebel demands that Assad’s regime play no part in negotiations to form a transitional government for Syria, while Russia has accused the West of pushing for regime change in Syria and has blocked UN resolutions targeting Assad, a long-time Kremlin ally and buyer of its weapons.


Distance from Assad
Apparently distancing Russia from Assad, Mr Lavrov insisted his country was “not interested in the fate of certain persons, we are interested in the fate of the Syrian people.”

“The task now is to convince the government and all the opposition groups . . . to sit at the negotiating table,” he added, revealing that Washington and Moscow aimed to arrange a peace conference on Syria as soon as possible, perhaps this month. They did not say where it would be held.

Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov said they hoped the communiqué agreed last year would form the basis of the new talks. Those Geneva negotiations ended with a call to all parties to cease violence and participate in a Syrian-led political process to create a transitional government, but did not spell out Assad’s future role.

Since then, however, diplomacy has foundered and fighting has only intensified.

Lakhdar Brahimi, an envoy to Syria for the UN and Arab League, said the US-Russia agreement was “the first hopeful news” about Syria “in a very long time”.

“The statements made in Moscow constitute a very significant first step forward. It is nevertheless only a first step,” Mr Brahimi added.

Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said Brussels was “very satisfied” with the Moscow accord and “stands ready to assist in any way possible”.


Cautious note
Syria’s main opposition group struck a cautious note, however, insisting that Assad and allies must leave power as part of a deal to end the fighting.

“The National Coalition welcomes all international efforts which call for a political solution to achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people and their hope for a democratic state, so long as they begin with the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his regime,” the group said in a statement.

One National Coalition member, Ahmed Ramadan, added: “Syrians are worried that the United States is advancing its own interests with Russia using the blood and suffering of the Syrian people.”