World powers involved in Syria traded barbs on Wednesday with the United States accused Russia of sowing seeds of global instability while Moscow criticized Turkey for complicating situation in the conflict-torn country.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter questioned whether Moscow genuinely wants a viable ceasefire in Syria.
In a hard-hitting speech at Oxford University, Carter emphasized deep skepticism about Russian intentions in Syria, even as US Secretary of State John Kerry considered traveling to Geneva on Wednesday for more talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Their weekend discussions, on the sidelines of an economic summit in China, failed to produce an agreement on more cooperation in Syria.
Russia is a firm supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and their joint military operation has sometimes targeted the anti-ISIS rebels backed by the Obama administration. The United States supports rebels fighting to overthrow Assad and has called on him to step down.
“Unfortunately so far, Russia, with its support for the Assad regime, has made the situation in Syria more dangerous, more prolonged and more violent. That has contributed to what President Obama this weekend called the ‘gaps of trust’ that exist between our two countries,” Carter said.
On Wednesday, an airstrike near the site of a suspected gas attack in Syria killed at least 10 civilians.
Turkey-backed rebels to go deeper
Meanwhile, Turkey-backed forces may go deeper into Syria after securing a 90 km (56 mile) stretch of land along the Turkish border, Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara after a cabinet meeting, Canikli also said that a total of 110 ISIS and Kurdish militia fighters have been killed since Turkey began its military campaign in Syria on Aug.24.
Canikli also said that President Tayyip Erdogan had told Obama that he viewed a joint operation in Syria’s Raqqa positively.
Russia to Turkey: refrain from steps
The statement came after Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday it was deeply concerned by the movement of Turkish troops and Ankara-backed Syrian opposition forces deeper into Syria’s territory, which may further aggravate the military and political situation in Syria.
“This calls into question the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic,” the ministry said in a statement. “We call on Ankara to refrain from any steps which can further destabilize the situation in Syria.”
The ministry’s statement comes after Turkey lost its first three soldiers since it launched the incursion into Syria - the so-called Euphrates Shield operation - to back Syrian rebels in their fight to push ISIS out of the town of Jarablus and to limit the Syrian Kurdish militia forces’ advance west of the Euphrates River.
First civilians to return to Jarablus
Meanwhile, a group of 292 Syrians went home to the Syrian town of Jarablus on Wednesday, marking the first formal civilian returns from Turkey since the start of the Turkish incursion, a regional official said.
Jarablus, which had been held by ISIS, was the first town captured by the Turkish army and its Syrian rebel allies in an offensive launched on Aug. 24. Turkey, which hosts 3 million Syrian refugees, has said it wants provide a safe zone for civilians to return to Syria.
“The formal returns have begun today. We wouldn’t consider anything before that as formal passage. This is the first time since the operation began,” a spokesman at the governor’s office for Gaziantep province, which lies across the border from Syria.
Opposition: Assad must go
Syria’s main opposition negotiating group would reject any deal struck by Russia and the United States on Syria’s fate that was very different from its own proposed transition plan, the group’s general coordinator Riyad Hijab said on Wednesday.
The High Negotiations Committee, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and Western powers and has been involved in stalled UN-mediated peace talks, was presenting its road map to a new political settlement for Syria in London.
The proposed process would start with six months of negotiations to set up a transitional administration made up of figures from the opposition, the government and civil society. It would require President Bashar al-Assad to leave office at the end of those six months.
The transitional body would then run the country for 18 months, after which there would be elections.
“If what the Russians and the Americans agree upon is very much different from what the Syrians aspire to, then we shall not accept it,” Hijab said.
“It’s not a question of keeping Assad in for six months or one month or one day, in this transitional period. The Russians and Americans know that. They know the position of the Syrian people, they have sacrificed a lot and they will not give up this demand. There cannot be a solution in Syria unless it is a solution that satisfies the aspirations of the Syrian people.”
Behind the scenes efforts
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the group’s proposals offered the first credible picture of a peaceful Syria without Assad.
“There is still a chance that this vision can be made to work,” Johnson wrote in a column in Wednesday’s Times newspaper.
“If the Russians and Americans can together create a ceasefire, then the talks can restart in Geneva with the difference, perhaps, that all sides will by then have seen at least the scaffolding of a post-Assad Syria.”
Moscow and Washington are backing opposite sides in the 5-1/2-year-old Syrian conflict, with the Russians fighting on Assad’s side while the Americans back opposition groups and insist Assad must go.
The two powers have been negotiating in recent days, with Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin meeting for 90 minutes on Monday on the sidelines of a G20 meeting in China, but failed to reach an agreement.
However, efforts are still going on behind the scenes and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in London on Tuesday that an agreement was possible within 24 hours.
In a briefing with British reporters, Al-Jubeir said it was right to pursue the diplomatic effort and “leave no stone unturned” in the quest for a political solution in Syria, but appeared pessimistic. He repeatedly said Assad was not trustworthy and was unlikely to comply with any agreement.
Regional power Iran is Assad’s strongest supporter and is determined to keep him in power in Damascus.
(With AP, Reuters, AFP)SHOW MORE