U.S. attempts a new path to Syria peace talks in Switzerland

syria-map-controlLAUSANNE, Switzerland — Syria talks with a fresh format but few fresh ideas opened in the Swiss lakeside town of Lausanne on Saturday, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seeking a new path to peace after failing to secure a ceasefire in direct talks with Russia.

Kerry hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and seven foreign ministers from the region — from Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt — three weeks after the collapse of a painstakingly crafted U.S.-Russian ceasefire plan that many saw as the last hope for peace this year.

Lavrov has said he has “no special expectations” for Saturday’s meeting. A senior U.S. State Department official said he foresaw no major announcement at the end of the day.

“This is going to be, as it has been now for several years, a very difficult process,” the U.S. official said.

Since the breakdown of U.S.-Russia cooperation, long the backbone of efforts to end the war in Syria, U.S. officials have worked on a number of ideas, and although no breakthrough is expected, the regional format could be the basis of a new process, the U.S. official said.

A Western diplomat in Lausanne said the meeting appeared ill-prepared and vague in its goals, and the list of invitees clarified only at the last moment.

“If it is to reach an agreement on Aleppo, countries have to make commitments: Russia to stop bombing, Iran to withdraw its militia on the ground supporting Damascus” the diplomat told Reuters.

“That is a lot to obtain in half a day. Especially when people who are arriving are not happy with the format of the talks,” he said. “If this format is to be credible, Kerry has to come out of the talks tonight saying we got something for Aleppo. A ceasefire would be credible.”

The U.S. is expected to once again push Russia to agree to a ceasefire in Aleppo, and Russia is seen as insisting on separating moderate opposition groups from those it considers terrorists.

Western powers have accused Russia and Syria of committing atrocities by bombing hospitals, killing civilians and preventing medical evacuations, as well as targeting an aid convoy with the loss of around 20 lives.

Syria and Russia counter that they are only targeting militants in Aleppo and accuse the United States of breaking the ceasefire by bombing scores of Syrian troops fighting Islamic State insurgents, over which the United States has expressed regret.

A senior rebel commander said on Friday that Syrian government forces would never be able to capture Aleppo’s eastern sector, but a military source said the operation was going as planned.

The United Nations has said food, fuel and medicine are running out in eastern Aleppo and there will be no rations to distribute from the start of next month.

NBC