MESOP BACKGROUNDER ON SYRIA : International Group to Resume Talks on May 17 — But Then?

 US Secretary of State John Kerry, hoping for a renewal of the February 27 “cessation of hostilities” agreement, has blamed both sides in Syria’s five-year conflict.

Speaking in Geneva on Monday after a meeting with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, Kerry also absolved Russia of any responsibility for the recent bombing that has killed hundreds of civilians and medical personnel in and near Aleppo city.

Kerry noted the airstrikes, particularly on medical facilities such as the Al-Quds Hospital last Wednesday, when 55 people were killed — “The attack on the hospital is on unconscionable, under any standard anywhere. It has to stop.” However, he then declared:

So both sides – the opposition and the regime – have contributed to this chaos. And we are working over these next hours intensely in order to try to restore the cessation of hostilities, and at the same time to raise the level of accountability that will accompany the day-to-day process of implementing the ceasefire. To that effect Russia and the United States have agreed that there will be additional personnel who will work from here in Geneva on a daily basis, 24/7, in order to – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – in order to try to make sure that there is a better job and a better ability to be able to enforce the cessation of hostilities day to day.

Although Russia has also carried out airstrikes since April 21, the Secretary of State made no reference to any deaths of damage caused by Moscow. Instead, he said of the assault on medical targets, including a center of the White Helmets civil defense organization: “There are only two air forces flying in that particular area, and the Russians are clear that they were not engaged or flying at that time.”

Earlier, before a discussion with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, the Secretary of State concentrated on the need to “separate” rebel forces from the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra, while al-Jubeir emphasized the “outrage” and “violation of all humanitarian laws” and repeated the demand that President Assad should leave power.

Asked at the appearance with de Mistura, “Do you really trust the Russians now?”, Kerry offered no response.

De Mistura, who is in Moscow on Tuesday, put out a line focusing on the Americans and Russians as peacemakers:

The US and Russian Federation, who on the 27th of February were able to do a miracle. Now, that miracle is becoming very fragile – so fragile that it’s really wasting a lot….There is no excuse for not finding again a reinvigorating and reinstalling and re-implementing what has been the only strong message the Syrian people have heard from all of us, that it’s possible to have talks when finally the cessation of hostilities is renewed.

Kerry spoke later in the day with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a brief statement, “Both ministers continued discussing the prospects for settlement and urged the parties to the conflict to observe ceasefire.”

250+ Killed in Aleppo in 12 Days

The February 27 cessation of hostilities was soon breached by clashes, especially in northwest Syria and the East Ghouta near Damascus. However, on April 21, it collapsed in Aleppo Province with the Russian-regime airstrikes. At least 250 civilians have been killed in opposition-held areas, and at least 540 wounded in more than 320 airstrikes and 65 barrel-bombings as well as surface-to-surface missiles and mortars.

The toll eased on Monday, with the Local Coordination Committees verifying only six deaths in Aleppo.

State media has claimed that more than 80 people were killed in the regime-controlled parts of Aleppo city from rebel shelling. However, evidence has been limited to photographs of damage to buildings and cars and individual casualties being treated in hospital.

State news agency SANA asserts this morning, from a “police source”, that 11 civilians were killed and 37 injured “due to terrorist attacks with rocket shells”.

Both Russian and regime outlets have falsely attributed the shelling to the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra — excluded from the cessation of hostilities — who have no presence in Aleppo city.

Last Friday, the Assad regime declared a short-term “regime of calm” in Latakia Province on the Mediterranean and in East Ghouta. However, the Syrian military quickly renewed its attempt to take opposition territory near Damascus.

The regime specifically excluded Aleppo from any truce. The US and Russia supported the “regime of calm”, but Washington did not press initially for any mention of Syria’s largest city.

Kerry: Regime Must Start Transition by August 1 or Face “Consequences”

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that the Assad regime must start a political transition by August 1 or face the consequences of a new US approach.

“The target date for the transition is 1st of August,” Kerry told reporters at the State Department. “So we’re now coming up to May. So either something happens in these next few months, or they are asking for a very different track.”

The Secretary did not define what the new US approach or the “consequences” would be, but he warned:

If Assad does not adhere to this, there will clearly be repercussions. One of them may be the total destruction of the cease-fire and then go back to war. I don’t think Russia wants that. I don’t think Assad is going to benefit from that. There may be even other repercussions being discussed. That is for the future.

Kerry spoke after a meeting between UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday, a day after the Secretary and de Mistura conferred in Geneva (see entry above).

He appeared to set out a tougher line than the recent US position, indicating that President Assad would eventually have to leave power for a resolution of Syria’s five-year conflict:

If Assad’s strategy is to somehow think he’s going to just carve out Aleppo and carve out a section of the country, I got news for you and for him: This war doesn’t end.

As long as Assad is there, the opposition is not going to stop fighting.

Kerry said he had put the message to Assad’s allies Russia and Iran:

Assad cannot reunite the country — it’s that simple.

Having gassed his people, barrel bombed his people, dropped bombs on hospitals, driven 12 million people out of their homes, tortured people, starved people, what kind of legitimacy should somebody who’s committed these kinds of atrocities suddenly claim to run the country? It’s pretty hard for anybody to understand how you make peace out of that record of chaos and depravity.