MOSCOW/ISTANBUL: The Syrian government, preparing for peace talks with rebels next week, handed the Russian co-sponsors of the conference a proposal Friday for a cease-fire in Aleppo and an exchange of prisoners.
There was no response from President Bashar Assad’s disparate opponents, whose very attendance at the talks due to start Wednesday in Switzerland remained in doubt – prompting an appeal from the United States, which tried to assure them that negotiations would lead to Assad’s departure from power.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, visiting Moscow, said he gave Russian officials a plan for a truce in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, where government forces have been unable to dislodge rebels over the past year.
He also said Damascus was ready to exchange prisoners, something rebels want.
Moscow and Washington have urged both sides to make concessions, including cease-fires, access for aid and prisoner exchanges, to build confidence before the conference.
But there is little sign of coherent negotiating positions – nor of violence abating. Rebels are fighting each other, in battles involving Islamist militants whose influence has cooled Western support for the uprising. Assad’s forces, once reeling, have recovered lately.
Most of the disparate rebel forces fighting inside Syria have dismissed the upcoming negotiations, known as Geneva-II.
Exile opposition leaders in the Syrian National Coalition, which is backed by Western and Arab powers, began a delayed meeting in Turkey Friday to decide whether to take part. It remained unclear how or when they would reach a final decision, however.
“The outcome is finely balanced, but I expect a ‘yes’ vote,” a Western diplomat said following the talks, adding that the United States, Britain and other Western backers had told the coalition that a “no” vote would lead to unwelcome consequences.
“We haven’t used the language of threats,” he said. “But we have made clear the decision on Geneva is a big one and it will be difficult to deliver on military and political strategy if they don’t go.”
The United States, the co-sponsor with Russia, issued an 11th-hour appeal to Assad’s opponents to participate in the first direct talks to end a war that has made millions homeless and inflamed tensions across the region and beyond.
The coalition, a fractious 120-member body, has already seen some of its members declare their hostility to joining the talks starting at Montreux – many for fear it would undermine their credibility at home to engage in a process they see as having little chance of forcing Assad to step down.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the coalition to attend, insisting that suggestions from Syria, and from Russia, that the process could result in Assad continuing his family’s four-decade rule were wide of the mark.
“I believe as we begin to get to Geneva, and begin to get into this process, that it will become clear there is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks he is going to be part of that future. It is not going to happen,” Kerry said while in Washington.
Moallem said the proposals from Syria could ease the conflict: “We would like this to serve as an example to other towns,” he said of the cease-fire plan for Aleppo.
Lavrov, who also met Iran’s foreign minister Thursday, called again for Tehran, Assad’s sponsor in the region, to be represented at the conference – something other powers have resisted on the grounds that Iran has not endorsed the view of the first Geneva meeting in 2012 that an interim administration should be established in Damascus to end the conflict.
In the latest fighting, rebels ousted an Al-Qaeda-linked faction from one of its northwestern bastions Friday, activists said, a significant blow to the group after two weeks of battles that have undercut the revolt against Assad.
Clashes this month have killed more than 1,000, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and helped Assad’s forces claw back territory around Aleppo.
The Observatory and activists said Friday that the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) had pulled out of the northern town of Saraqeb, strategically important because it straddles highways connecting Aleppo, Damascus and Assad’s coastal stronghold of Latakia.
Rival insurgents – including many from the Islamic Front, a large alliance of some of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups – had been fighting to take the town for days and moved tanks and machine gun-mounted pickups against ISIS about a week ago.
A local commander of the Nusra Front – another Al-Qaeda-aligned group that has clashed with ISIS in some areas – said fighters from Nusra and from the Syrian Revolutionaries Front faction would take over military sites and checkpoints while ISIS and the Islamic Front withdrew.
“The decision wasn’t up to them,” the commander said via Skype. “This was a good result. Stopping the clashes is always the best outcome. We in Nusra are not picking any side.”
But in a sign the conflict was far from over, ISIS, bolstered by reinforcements from countryside east of Aleppo, recaptured the town of Jarablus on the northern border with Turkey from rival insurgents.
ISIS bombed to rubble a number of houses belonging to other rebels and at least 22 fighters from brigades opposed to ISIS were killed, five of whom after being taken prisoner.