No progress in Russia-US standoff on Syria

Russia and the United States failed to reconcile their differences on Syria at a Group of 20 summit in Mexico, but both warned of the danger of an all-out civil war, US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday.

Obama said Russia and China did not agree to Western calls for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as Syrian forces fought intense battles with rebels in Homs on Tuesday.
International efforts to halt the violence are deadlocked due to differences between Western powers and their Gulf Arab allies on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other.

Moscow and Beijing are pushing for a solution through political dialogue, a suggestion the Gulf-funded opposition groups have refused to entertain. The two powers have also called on the West to cease its support of Syrian rebels, saying such a move only exacerbates the conflict.

The West have pushed back, urging Russia and China to sign on to their call for Assad’s removal and support a transition of power similar to the deal reached in Yemen in late 2011.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Putin had changed his view of Assad during talks with Obama and other world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, and that discussions were now focused on a transition of power in Syria.

But Putin immediately seemed to contradict that notion, telling reporters at the end of the summit: “We believe that nobody has the right to decide for other nations who should be brought to power, who should be removed from power.”

Speaking at the summit, Obama said Assad has lost all legitimacy and that it was impossible to conceive of any solution to the violence in Syria that leaves him in power.

Obama conceded he had failed to make a breakthrough with the leaders of Russia or China despite intensive talks.

“I wouldn’t suggest that at this point the United States and the rest of the international community are aligned with Russia and China in their positions, but I do think they recognize the grave dangers of all-out civil war,” he told reporters.

He said it is important for the world community to work with the United Nations and international mediator Kofi Annan “on what a political transition would look like. … But I don’t think it would be fair to say that the Russians and the Chinese are signed on at this point.”

Alarmed but apparently impotent to resolve the crisis, the outside world is deeply divided in its response to an increasingly sectarian conflict that threatens to become a proxy war for regional powers.

The United Nations estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed in 15 months of violence and unrest.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, and Cameron were present with Obama for the talks with Putin.

“There remain differences over sequencing and the shape of how the transition takes place but it is welcome that President Putin has been explicit that he does not want Assad remaining in charge in Syria,” Cameron told reporters.

“What we need next is an agreement on a transitional leadership which can move Syria to a democratic future that protects the rights of all its communities,” Cameron added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Cameron’s statement that Putin does not want Assad to remain in power “does not correspond to reality.”

Separately, a cargo ship off the British coast carrying weapons bound for Syria has apparently turned back towards Russia, Britain’s Foreign Secretary said, calling again for a halt to arms shipments to Assad.

The Curacao-flagged cargo ship Alaed, last seen off the north-west coast of Scotland this week, was believed to carrying Russian weaponry to Syria, according to an insurer that said it had withdrawn coverage for the vessel.

The Pentagon said Russia’s military was preparing to send three ships to Syria, but noted that Moscow’s stated intention was to send supplies and personnel to its naval facility in the Mediterranean port of Tartus.

UN monitors targeted

General Robert Mood of Norway, chief UN monitor for Syria, told the 15-nation Security Council behind closed doors that his 300-strong unarmed observer force was targeted with gunfire or by hostile crowds at least 10 times last week, UN diplomats present at the meeting told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Mood said that “indirect fire” incidents in which gunfire struck within 300-400 meters of observers occurred on a daily basis, envoys said. Last week, nine vehicles of the observer mission, known as UNSMIS, were struck or damaged, they added.

One diplomat said Mood spoke of “several hundred indirect fire incidents.”

UNSMIS’ 90-day mandate expires on July 21 and it is unclear whether the council will extend it.

Opposition supporters said violence flared across the country on Tuesday and state media said rebels blew up two oil pipelines.

SANA news agency said an “armed terrorist group” attacked an oil derivatives pipeline linking Homs and Damascus in the Sultaniya area of southern Homs, causing a fire and heavy smoke that residents said was visible from the center of the city.

A crude oil pipeline in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor was also blown up. SANA quoted an oil ministry source as saying pumping was expected to resume in the next few days, adding that the same pipeline had been targeted twice in the last two weeks.

The opposition says at least 2,000 people have been killed in Syria since Annan’s April 12 ceasefire deal, which was intended to be the first stage in a political plan to resolve Syria’s 15-month-old crisis.

“There are many buildings and houses completely destroyed (in Homs), and many injuries in the field hospitals which need surgery,” said one resident of Syria’s third biggest city to Reuters, who gave his name as Nidal.

“There are many martyrs and no medicine.”

(Al-Akhbar, Reuters)

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