US: Talks with Russia on Syria ‘on life support’

Lavrov also told Kerry on Friday that Moscow is ready to consider additional ways to normalize the situation in Aleppo

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Two days after threatening to suspend talks with Russia on the crisis in Syria, the United States confirmed Friday that negotiations continue but insisted they are “on life support.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry called Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the third day in a row, but received no sign that Moscow is ready to halt the Syrian regime’s assault on Aleppo.

On Thursday, amid much criticism at home and abroad that the threat to break off US-Russian bilateral talks on Syria was hollow, Kerry insisted that he was “on the verge” of ending them.

And that’s where matters remained 24 hours later, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, while introducing a new metaphor to describe how close the rival capitals are to a rupture.

“This is on life support, but it has not flatlined yet,” he told reporters when asked why Kerry believes it is worthwhile to keep the diplomatic channel open while Russian jets pound Aleppo.

“It’s egregious, it's horrific, it’s in clear violation of international standards or norms, humanitarian norms and international law,” Toner said.

And he agreed that “at a certain point” Washington would have to look again “to see if it becomes futile to continue to believe in a diplomatic process.”

“That said, I just can’t definitively say we’re there at that point yet. We’re very close but we’re not there yet.”

Earlier, Lavrov had hit out in an interview with the BBC, suggesting Washington may be trying to protect militants from assault in order to later use them against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Toner dismissed this charge out of hand. “It left me shaking my head, he said. “It’s absurd.”

A short-lived truce brokered by Moscow and Washington earlier this month fell apart as both sides blamed each other for its failure.

Moscow has since been accused of indiscriminately bombing rebel-held eastern Aleppo in support of an assault by Syrian government troops aiming capture all of the country’s second city.

Lavrov also told Kerry on Friday that Moscow is ready to consider additional ways to normalize the situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo. He told Kerry over the phone that the ceasefire agreement brokered by Moscow and Washington had been violated numerous times in eastern parts of Aleppo by forces led by the group formerly known as the Nusra Front.

Lavrov told Kerry that Washington’s failure to separate terrorist’s groups from the moderate opposition in Syria, had allowed Nusra to “hide behind other armed groups of the opposition with which Washington is cooperating,” the ministry said.

The conversation between the two officals came as a a Russian newspaper reported that Russia sent more warplanes to Syria to further ramp up its campaign of air strikes on Friday.

According to an opposition monitoring group, a year of Russian airstrikes on areas outside government control in Syria have killed more than 9,000 people, displaced tens of thousands and caused widespread destruction.

On Sept. 30 last year, Russia began an air campaign backing the ground forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, turning the balance of power in his favor in many areas - including the northern province of Aleppo and the suburbs of the capital Damascus.

Opposition activists have blamed Russia for most of the recent airstrikes against rebel-held neighborhoods of east Aleppo city that have killed more than 320 civilians in the past two weeks and demolished many buildings.

The US is close to suspending talks with Russia on a ceasefire in Syria, Kerry said ealier on Thursday, as the Kremlin vowed to press on with an assault on the city of Aleppo.

The United States and European Union accuse Russia of torpedoing diplomacy to pursue military victory in Aleppo, and say Moscow and Damascus are targeting civilians, hospitals and aid workers to break the will of 250,000 people living under siege in the city.

The United States called the assault on Aleppo by Syria and Russia “a gift” to ISIS on Thursday, saying it was sowing doom and would generate more recruits for the militant group. But US officials are searching for a tougher response to Russia’s decision to ignore the peace process and seek military victory on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.

“We are on the verge of suspending the discussion because it is irrational in the context of the kind of bombing taking place to be sitting there trying to take things seriously,” Kerry told a public policy conference in Washington. Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, the US State Department said but it did not announce a suspension of the diplomacy, suggesting Washington may give Moscow a little more time.

Syrian government forces made a significant advance, capturing the Handarat refugee camp a few kilometers (miles) north of the city. They had briefly seized it on Saturday, before losing it again in a rebel counter attack. Rebel fighters have launched an advance of their own near the central city of Hama, where they said they made gains on Thursday.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned what they called “barbarous” Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes on Aleppo during a phone call Thursday, the White House said.

The Syrian government and its ally Russia “bear special responsibility for ending the fighting in Syria,” the two leaders agreed, strongly condemning the strikes in eastern Aleppo, an area they said is “populated with hundreds of thousands of civilians, half of whom are children.”

The United Nations says a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding unlike any witnessed so far in Syria’s brutal five-year war as Moscow and Damascus carry out an offensive to retake the city after a ceasefire collapsed last week.

Obama and Merkel urged parties on the ground to “continue respecting the ceasefire, begin the disengagement of forces along the line of contact as quickly as possible and provide international monitors unfettered access to the entire conflict zone.”

Air strikes pounded Aleppo province on Thursday while at least 11 civilians, including seven children, died during attacks on the city of Idlib, nearby Jarjanaz and central Hama province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

(With Agencies)

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