Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavroy on Wednesday working at resolving issues over who is eligible to attend U.N. peace talks for Syria scheduled to begin next week. The issues at hand have threatened to delay the start of the negotiations. The State Department said the two men had discussed plans for the negotiations that the U.N. special envoy for Syria. Peace talks between the Syrian government and many rebel and opposition groups are to start Monday in Geneva.
But the specter of a delay looms because the countries organizing the talks have not agreed on which groups constitute the legitimate Syrian opposition and which should be designated terrorist outfits. Those labeled terrorist would be banned from the talks and be exempt from a cease-fire. Kerry has been pushing for the talks to start soon to maintain momentum. The negotiations are meant to usher in a political transition for Syria that culminates in the formation of a new government within 18 months.
The United States hopes to secure a guarantee that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will cede power, as U.S. forces look to focus on combating the Islamic State militant group, which controls vast territory in Syria and Iraq. It was not immediately clear if the differences had been resolved. Lavroy said that the U.S. and Russia have had no thoughts about changing the start of the talks from January to February.
The political process will begin, we hope, in the nearest future, during January. Various dates have been named, but the final decision will be taken by the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the advice and recommendations of his special envoy Staffan de Mistura.”
Kerry also called for Russia to use its influence with Syrian President Bashar Assad “to ensure immediate, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all Syrians in need,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said, particularly in besieged communities like Madaya, where deaths from starvation have been reported. Negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition are to be the first step in a proposed 18-month political transition for Syria.
Russia and Iran, which back Assad, have immense differences with Saudi Arabia, other Arab states, the United States and Europe over which opposition groups should be considered terrorists and therefore excluded from an 18-month political transition process the U.N. has endorsed.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Kerry, in his meeting with Lavrov, urged Russia to use its influence with Assad to allow aid workers to deliver food and medicine to civilians trapped by the conflict. Aid workers have not been able to reach stricken areas as a humanitarian crisis spawned by the war continues to spread.
About 400,000 Syrians are trapped in besieged towns, according to estimates from the United Nations, and starvation deaths have been reported in the town of Madaya. The United Nations has accused the Assad government of blocking aid to people living in rebel-held areas. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Davos that the need for peace talks is urgent.