Russia on Friday curtly rejected Western accusations that it had sabotaged Syria peace talks in Geneva by militarily backing the Damascus regime’s offensive in Aleppo.
“It’s in bad taste. This is not a good time for recriminations,” Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters as the U.N. Security Council was about to begin closed door consultations on Syria.
U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura briefed the council on his decision to suspend the Geneva negotiations until February 25.
Churkin defended the Russian air strikes carried out around Aleppo in support of regime forces as they advanced on rebel fighters.
“It is not a Russian escalation but intensified efforts by the Syrian government to fight the terrorists,” he said.
He added that sieges had been lifted on certain Syrian communities in recent days.
Churkin said he was “hopeful” the U.N.-mediated “proximity talks” in Geneva between representatives of the regime and the opposition, would resume before February 25.
His British counterpart Matthew Rycroft criticized the Russian military campaign, blaming it for the breakdown in the talks.
“He needs to look in the mirror and understand where the responsibility lies,” he said of Churkin. “The opposition needs to see that we mean it when we say we want to build their confidence.”
“Russians need to do what they said in the first place: to be in Syria to fight Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, an extremist movement that is fighting the Syrian regime but which is opposed by the West.
“If they did that, yes, we would be cooperating very effectively,” Rycroft said.
Asked about the chances of the Geneva talks resuming soon, he said, “A lot depends on the confidence building measures, we need as strong a package as possible of measures that will help rebuild the faith of the Syrian opposition.”
“At the very least, it is going to involve opening up humanitarian access and an end to indiscriminate aerial bombardments,” he said.
The Syrian opposition has insisted on those two points, as well as the freeing of prisoners, as conditions for its participation in the Geneva talks.
French ambassador Francois Delattre said his government fully supports de Mistura’s decision to suspend the talks, and condemns the “brutal” Russian-backed Syrian offensive.
“One cannot expect the opposition to negotiate with a gun to their heads,” he told reporters.
Paris remains committed to a “credible negotiation” but “the negotiations cannot be a smoke screen allowing the regime to continue quietly its massacres,” Delattre said.
Diplomats said that in the closed door consultations de Mistura reiterated that the Syrian opposition had demanded the lifting of sieges, a halt to air bombardments, the freeing of prisoners and better humanitarian access.
But, he was quoted as saying, “Everyone saw that violence on the ground was increasing while we were conducting the talks.”
“The Syrian people need to feel that this time there is really an improvement on the ground,” diplomats quoted him as saying.