UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Wednesday hailed a US-Russia accord to push both sides fighting in the Syrian conflict to end the bloodshed, but cautioned that it was “only a first step”.
The US-Russia agreement came after lengthy talks in Moscow between US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“This is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time,” Brahimi said of Syria in a statement.
“The statements made in Moscow constitute a very significant first step forward. It is nevertheless only a first step,” said the veteran Algerian diplomat who an aide has been mulling resignation over the apparent absence of a political track to resolve the brutal civil war.
“There is every reason to expect” backing for the accord from the remaining UN Security Council permanent members, his statement said.
“It is equally important that the entire region mobilises in the support of the process,” it added.
The latest moves came as the United Nations said efforts were under way to secure the release of four Filipino peacekeepers seized by gunmen on the Golan Heights.
Kerry and Lavrov announced the agreement at a Moscow news conference.
“We agreed that Russia and the United States will encourage both the Syria government and opposition groups to find a political solution,” Lavrov said.
He said both the countries were ready to use all their resources to bring “the government and opposition to the negotiating table”.
Lavrov and Kerry said they hoped they could convene an international conference by the end of May to build on the Geneva accord agreed by world powers last June for a peaceful solution in Syria.
The Geneva agreement, which was never implemented, set out a path toward a transitional government without ever spelling out the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.
The six-point accord — negotiated by the last UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan — “should be the road map… by which the people of Syria can find their way to the new Syria and in which the bloodshed, the killing, the massacres can end”, Kerry said.
“The alternative is that there’s even more violence, the alternative is that Syria heads even closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos,” Kerry warned of a conflict that has already claimed more than 70,000 lives.
He said only the Syrian regime and the opposition can determine the make-up of a transitional government to shepherd the war-torn nation towards democratic elections.
“It’s impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place,” Kerry said.
“But I’m not going to decide that tonight, and I’m not going to decide that in the end.”
Russia has long accused the West of worsening the Syria conflict by seeking to topple the Assad regime.
The US and other Western states have in turn accused Russia of failing to use its influence with the regime to halt the bloodshed, and of keeping up military deliveries to Assad.
UN efforts were under way on Wednesday to free four peacekeepers from the Philippines who were seized by an unidentified armed group in the Golan Heights, the second such abduction of Filipino forces in two months.
Manila called their detention a “gross violation” of international law and urged the UN Security Council to “use its influence for the early and safe release” of the four.
Meanwhile, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday the Jewish state was not getting involved in Syria’s civil war, but insisted it would not permit the transfer of arms to Damascus ally Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a bitter war in the summer of 2006.
On Friday and Sunday Israel carried out air strikes near Damascus that sent regional tensions soaring.
On the ground on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels shot down a regime fighter over the northern province of Aleppo.
“Opposition fighters shot down a fighter jet that was shelling areas near Minnigh military air base… and the pilot’s fate remains unknown,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syria’s Internet blackout went into its second consecutive day Wednesday, with the state news agency blaming a technical fault.
A similar blackout happened in November. Activists say sudden cuts in communications can happen before regime forces launch major offensives.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]