US believes Russia buying time to crush Syrian rebels
Russia has proposed a March 1 ceasefire in Syria, US officials say, but Washington believes Moscow is giving itself and the Syrian government three weeks to try to crush moderate rebel groups.
The US has countered with demands for the fighting to stop immediately, the officials said. Peace talks are supposed to resume by February 25.
The talk of new ceasefire plans comes as the US, Russia, and more than a dozen other countries meet in Munich to try to halt five years of civil war in the Arab country.
The conflict has killed more than a quarter of a million people, created Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War and allowed Islamic State (IS) to carve out its own territory across parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
Russia says it is supporting Syrian president Bashar Assad’s government as part of a counter-terrorism campaign.
However, the West says the majority of its strikes are targeting moderate groups that are opposed to Assad and IS.
The most recent Russian-backed offensive, near Aleppo, prompted opposition groups to walk out of peace talks last month in Geneva, while forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee towards the Turkish border.
The US officials were not authorised to speak publicly about private diplomatic discussions in the run-up to the Munich conference and demanded anonymity.
One said the US can not accept Russia’s offer because opposition forces could suffer irreversible losses in northern and southern Syria before the ceasefire ever takes hold.
The officials said the US counterproposal is simple: A ceasefire that is effective immediately and is accompanied by full humanitarian access to Syria’s besieged civilian centres.
The Obama administration has been trying for months to clinch a ceasefire and pave the way for a transition government in Syria that would allow parties to the conflict to concentrate on defeating the threat posed by IS and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
However, after having long demanded Assad be ousted, the shift in the US focus to combating terrorism has resulted in a confusing mix of priorities and a layered strategy in Syria that few understand, and even fewer see working.
Beyond Russia, the administration has often struggled to keep its own allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia in line.
“We will approach this meeting in Munich with great hopes that this will be a telling moment,” John Kerry said.
His peace push coincides with Defence Secretary Ash Carter’s attendance at a gathering in Brussels to hash out military options with Nato partners.
Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s pointman for defeating IS, said Russia’s Aleppo offensive was having the perverse effect of helping the extremists by drawing local fighters away from the battle against IS and to the war against Syria’s government.
“What Russia’s doing is directly enabling IS,” McGurk told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington.
However, the panel’s top Democrat echoed some of the frustration of his Republican colleagues with the larger US strategy.
“It seems as if we’re only halfheartedly going after ISIS, and halfheartedly helping the [rebel] Free Syria Army and others on the ground,” said Republican Eliot Engel.
He urged a “robust campaign, not a tentative one, not one that seems like we’re dragging ourselves in... to destroy IS and get rid of Assad.”
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