WASHINGTON/MOSCOW: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday hit out at the “barbaric” Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad for its sustained barrel bomb campaign centered on the city of Aleppo.
Kerry’s criticism came as Russian officials said a Syrian regime delegation would be taking part in the next round of Geneva II talks, and would speed up work on handing over its chemical weapons stockpiles.
“Each and every day that the barrel-bombing of Aleppo continues, the Assad regime reminds the world of its true colors,” Kerry wrote in a statement. “It is the latest barbaric act of a regime that has committed organized, wholesale torture, used chemical weapons, and is starving whole communities by blocking delivery of food to Syrian civilians in urgent need.”
More than 150 people have been killed in Aleppo over the past four days, in a string of barrel bomb raids and other airstrikes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
At least 11 people, including five children, were the latest casualties when Syrian army helicopters unleashed a new wave of the bombs which Kerry said were “filled with metal shrapnel and fuel.”
The bombs hit a mosque in the northern city, which the pro-opposition Aleppo Media Center said was being used as a school.
“Given this horrific legacy, the Syrian people would never accept as legitimate a government including Assad,” Kerry said, referring to Monday’s Geneva peace talks, aimed at installing a transitional government in the war-torn country.“While the opposition and the international community are focused on ending the war ... the regime is single-mindedly focused on inflicting further destruction to strengthen its hand on the battlefield and undermining hopes for the success of the Geneva II process,” Kerry added.
For its part, Moscow gave reassurances that its ally would show up for the Geneva talks and that it would soon ship more chemical weapons abroad for destruction after being accused of dragging its feet.
“Literally yesterday [Monday] the Syrians announced that the removal of a large shipment of chemical substances is planned in February. They are ready to complete this process by March 1,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, according to the state-run news agency RIA.
The delay in removing chemical weapons has prompted Western criticism that Damascus was seeking to gain leverage during the peace talks. Russia says those concerns are overblown and rejects claims that the move is deliberate, while Syria has blamed security concerns for the delay.
Russia also hosted the leader of the opposition’s National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, for the first time since the 3-year-old conflict began.
Gatilov indicated that Moscow expected Assad to state firmly his delegation’s intentions to resume the Geneva II peace talks next week.
“We have no doubt Damascus will issue orders for the government delegation to continue the negotiations in Geneva,” Gatilov said at the start of Jarba’s talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Jarba stressed that the umbrella opposition group was especially concerned with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem’s refusal in Geneva to hold any discussion about a transitional government that could pave the way for Assad’s removal from power. He told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting that Lavrov treated the opposition’s stance on Assad with “understanding.”
“We told the Russian leaders that we are open to any solutions that ensure Syria’s future – a future that is free of Assad and his war criminals,” Jarba said. “I think that we have entered a new stage of relations with Russia,” the opposition leader added.
“We now have good relations ... that I hope will continue to develop further,” Jarba said.
But Lavrov himself gave no sign that Moscow intended to yield to Jarba’s foreign-based opposition alliance and step up its pressure on the regime.
Russia’s top diplomat simply told Jarba in opening comments available to reporters that “today’s conversation will be very, very useful in helping clarify approaches that could help advance the Geneva process.”
Moscow wants to persuade the coalition-led delegation at Geneva to include more moderate internal opposition groups, which rebels argue are Assad stooges.
Jarba excluded any groups that had been prepared “in the basements of the regime’s security service.” “There will be nobody in the opposition delegation to Geneva who is tied to the regime this way or another,” he said.
Elsewhere, aid distribution continued in the Palestinian refugee camp in the south Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk which has received small aid deliveries in recent days from U.N. personnel, although two more deaths were reported in the suburb due to malnutrition and dehydration.