Russia, US Discuss Organizing Syria Political Process

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
October 24, 2015 Updated: October 24, 2015

DAMASCUS, Syria—Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday discussed ways of organizing a political process between the Syrian government and its opponents, a day after the two met in Vienna along with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the Russian foreign ministry said.

The top diplomats from the four countries put forward new ideas to revive a failed push for a political transition in Syria that would end the country’s civil war, Kerry said after Friday’s meeting. But they remained deeply divided over the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The follow-up telephone discussion between Lavrov and Kerry was initiated by Kerry, the Russian foreign ministry said.

Separately, Lavrov said Saturday that Russia was ready to support the Free Syrian Army in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). The Free Syrian Army is the main Western-backed opposition group fighting Assad.

“We are ready to include the patriotic opposition, among them the Free Syrian Army, to support them from the air,” he said in an interview aired Saturday on state television channel Rossiya-1.

But he said the Americans would not give Moscow the locations of the opposition group and the locations of terrorist groups. He said the U.S. was refusing to coordinate their anti-terrorist campaign in Syria, calling it a “big mistake.”

“We are ready for such coordination as thoroughly as possible,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Vienna, on Oct. 23, 2015. Kerry and his Russian, Saudi, and Turkish counterparts met in Vienna on Friday, seeking to revive a moribund effort to end Syria's civil war. (Carlo Allegri/AP)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Vienna, on Oct. 23, 2015. Kerry and his Russian, Saudi, and Turkish counterparts met in Vienna on Friday, seeking to revive a moribund effort to end Syria’s civil war. (Carlo Allegri/AP)

Syria is in its fifth year of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands, spurred a massive refugee crisis in Europe and led to the emergence of the Islamic State group and Russia’s direct military intervention.

Russia says it is targeting ISIS and other terrorists in Syria, but most of the Russian airstrikes have focused on areas where the militants do not have an active presence.

Syria’s parliament speaker said Saturday that Syria, along with its allies Russia and Iran, is working to push forward a political solution in parallel with the fight against terrorism on the ground, by activating dialogue with the “national opposition” that rejects foreign intervention in Syria’s internal affairs.

The comments by Jihad al-Laham came during a meeting in Damascus with a visiting Russian parliamentary delegation. He said Syrian-Russian coordination “has started achieving results” by driving out terrorism.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said Saturday it had mistakenly sent hundreds of boxes of expired biscuits to besieged civilians in rebel-held areas near Damascus as part of a relief convoy earlier this month.

A total of 320 out of 650 boxes of high energy biscuits sent to Zabadani and Madaya on Oct. 18 had expired a month earlier.

“We can confirm that this was the result of an unfortunate human error during the loading process,” Yacoub El Hillo, the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, said in a statement Saturday.

He said the U.N. Syria team is taking the issue “very seriously” and working with its humanitarian partners to rectify the situation, but added that medical sources had confirmed that eating the expired biscuits would pose no health threats.

The aid convoy that went into Zabadani and Madaya was a rare instance of assistance reaching besieged areas near Damascus during a cease-fire between Syrian government forces and their allies and insurgents.

The U.N. statement came after concerns were raised that children consuming the expired biscuits could become sick.

El Hillo said the U.N. has sent a request to all parties involved, including the Syrian government, to facilitate immediate access to the areas to replace the biscuits and allow medical personnel to examine and treat potential patients.

Meanwhile, World Health Organization officials said no new polio cases have been reported in the Middle East for more than 18 months despite continuing conflict, declining immunization rates and mass population displacement, leading experts to believe an outbreak has been successfully halted.

The outbreak which officials say paralyzed 36 children in Syria and two in Iraq between October 2013 and April 2014 prompted fears of a major epidemic and was followed by the largest ever immunization response in the history of the Middle East.