US President Barack Obama made a plea Sunday for warring parties in Syria to return to peace talks and “reinstate” a ceasefire, as he defended a refusal to establish a safe zone in the country.
“I spoke to (Russian) President Vladimir Putin early last week to try to make sure that we could reinstate the cessation of hostilities,” he told a news conference in Germany.
That was the clearest indication yet that the White House believes an increasingly troubled ceasefire has disintegrated as regime and rebel bombardments claimed 26 lives Sunday.
The White House has argued that the ceasefire, while imperfect, is worth pursuing and is the only way out of the brutal five-year conflict.
But its stance is bringing Washington and its allies into ever more conflict with rebel groups on the ground, which continue to be on the receiving end of regime attacks.
Pressure on Obama is increasing in the United States, which in is the throes of a fiercely fought presidential election race, and from European allies who want to stop vast flows of refuges.
Many of Obama’s critics have called for a safe zone to be established, something that could bring Western militaries into direct conflict with Russian and Syria forces already in the area.
Obama insisted that establishing a safe zone “is not a matter of an ideological objection on my part.”
“As a practical matter, sadly, it is very difficult to see how it would operate short of us essentially being willing to militarily take over a big chunk of that country.”
Obama has come under criticism for his handling of Syria’s war, with opponents saying he could have done more to stem the bloodshed.
But the US president -- who came to power vowing to withdraw US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan -- has stood fast in his opposition to plunging the United States into another ground war in the Muslim world.
14 killed in Aleppo
At least 14 people, including two young siblings, have been killed in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, as rebels and government forces trade fire, an opposition monitoring group said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said six people were killed by rebel shelling on government-held areas in the city on Saturday, including the two siblings. Syria’s state news agency reported 10 killed, saying rebel-launched rockets struck schools and residential areas.
The Observatory says eight people, including two children, were killed by airstrikes and shelling on the opposition-held side of the city. The activist-run Local Coordination Committees blames the strikes on the government.
The Aleppo Conquest rebel coalition on Saturday threatened to dissolve a nearly two-month-old cease-fire with the government if pro-government forces continued to strike civilians in opposition areas.
Meanwhile, Regional Kurdish security forces will keep territory taken from pro-Syrian government forces during a three-day outbreak of violence in northeastern Syria, a truce document announced on Sunday showed, with both sides to release prisoners taken during the clashes.
Fighting broke out between Kurdish Asayish forces and pro-Syrian government security forces on Wednesday in Qamishli, near the Turkish border. A peace accord took effect at 3:30 p.m. (1230 GMT) on Friday and the truce was holding on Sunday.
A Syrian Kurdish YPG official said this was the second biggest outbreak of fighting between President Bashar al-Assad's government and regional Kurdish forces since Syria’s civil war began in 2011.
During the fighting, Asayish forces seized control of a number of government-controlled positions in the city of Qamishli in Hasaka province as well as its main prison.
The truce agreement said “the prevailing military situation will be maintained as it is,” indicating territory taken from government control will not be returned.
Syrian Kurdish regional interior minister Canaan Barakat, speaking in Qamishli on Sunday to announce the terms of the truce, said 17 civilians, 7 Asayish members and 3 YPG members had been killed in the clashes.
The Observatory said 22 members of Syrian government forces died and 80 were taken prisoner. It said 23 civilians died during government shelling of Kurdish-controlled areas.
The agreement also said: the structure of the pro-government national defence forces present in Qamishli will be reconsidered; prisoners and detainees taken by both sides will be released; compensation will be paid to civilians who lost relatives or suffered material damage during government shelling; and, the regime is to no longer interfere in the local society.
The truce also stipulated the state of emergency in the city should be lifted. The Observatory said life is slowly returning to normal but the main market remains closed.
Qamishli, near the Turkish border, is mostly controlled by Kurdish security forces, though pro-Assad forces still hold a few areas in the city centre, and its airport. This co-existence is largely peaceful.
Syrian Kurdish forces now dominate wide areas of northern Syria and set up their own government there. Syria has become a patchwork of areas controlled by the government, an array of rebel groups, Islamic State militants, and Kurdish militia.
Mediators have struggled to get Syria’s combatants to honor a Feb. 27 cessation of hostilities deal to enable peace talks to proceed. On Friday, the U.N. special envoy for Syria vowed to take the talks into next week despite a walkout by the main armed opposition with both sides gearing up to escalate the war.
(With AP, Reuters)