Russia seeks distance from Syria's al-Assad amid Vienna peace talks

Russia, long one of the key backers of the Syrian government as the country disintegrated into civil war, distanced itself from embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday as international peace talks resumed in Vienna.

"We don't support al-Assad. We support the fight against terrorism," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a televised press conference.

Lavrov clarified that, while Russia does not protect al-Assad personally, it views the Syrian military as a key force in the fight against terrorism.

Russia and the United States, which have backed opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, managed to broker a ceasefire deal between the Syrian government and rebel groups in February.

"Russia has worked closely with the United States to upgrade our ability" to maintain the ceasefire, US Secretary of State John Kerry said during Tuesday's press conference.

Russia has leverage on al-Assad and reports that the president has agreed to constitutional reform, Kerry told reporters.

"There is no way to end this without a political solution," Kerry said.

Kerry and Lavrov led a meeting of top diplomats from UN veto powers and the Middle East in Vienna on Tuesday, aimed at strengthening the fragile Syrian truce and reviving peace talks.

It was the first meeting of the International Syria Support Group since February, when its members brokered the ceasefire. The truce has become increasingly frayed during the past weeks.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters that he hoped for peace to extend across the Syrian region of Aleppo, one of the major flashpoints of violence.

The International Syria Support Group has tasked the UN with launching air drops to bring aid to Syrians in hard-to-reach areas, Steinmeier said.

However, he offered no indication that the Vienna talks resulted in a tangible outcome on strengthening the shaky ceasefire, adding that the diplomatic debate was "controversial."

The Syria contact group consists of 17 countries that have backed various sides in the civil war and used their influence with the regime and the armed rebels to establish a truce.

The US government backs certain rebel groups, while Russia supports the Syrian government.

The Vienna talks also include top diplomats from regional foes Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back the rebels and the regime, respectively.

UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva ended last month without any progress after the opposition delegation walked out, citing surging attacks by regime forces helped by Russia, as well as problems with humanitarian aid shipments.

While the Syrian opposition demands that al-Assad step down and pave the way for a political transition, the government delegation in Geneva has so far refused to talk about such a scenario.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country supported the truce and a peace dialogue, but he warned that a complete ceasefire might aid terrorist groups operating in Syria.

"We should not allow terrorists to use the cessation of hostilities for further terror operations," he said.

The truce deal does not extend to the extremist groups Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syria branch, meaning attacks against those groups may proceed.

Last update: Tue, 17/05/2016 - 19:42
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