Global efforts to end the bloody conflict in Syria gathered steam Monday as top US diplomat John Kerry met his Russian counterpart in Paris in talks aimed at breathing life into a peace conference.
The push to bring warring sides together is becoming ever-more pressing in a conflict that has claimed more than 94,000 lives, amid reports of “horrific” rights violations and mounting evidence that chemical weapons are being used.
In Brussels, meanwhile, 27 European Union foreign ministers struggled to hammer out a compromise in a lengthy meeting aimed at deciding whether to supply weapons to Syria’s rebels when an arms embargo expires this week.
These international diplomatic efforts come against a background of growing divisions within the Syrian opposition, as fighting rages on the ground between rebels and regime troops now aided by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in a Paris hotel to advance the initiative for an international peace conference, and the two will later be joined by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius for dinner.
The US secretary of state will brief Lavrov about a recent Friends of Syria meeting in Jordan, at which the 11 ministers of the core group told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that refusing to negotiate was not an option.
Kerry has warned that unless the two sides come to the table, the world will witness “the continued tragic disintegration of a country that will go down further into more violence and more bloodshed and more destruction.”
The proposed conference is being spearheaded by Russia and the United States and has been dubbed “Geneva 2” after a similar meeting last June produced a peace roadmap that was however never implemented.
But with the much-publicised involvement of Hezbollah threatening to pull Lebanon deep into the conflict, the talks are becoming increasingly pressing.
Fabius on Monday said there were “mounting suspicions” that chemical weapons were being used in Syria, and UN human rights chief Navi Pillay decried the “horrific” level of rights violations.
The Syrian regime has agreed “in principle” to attend a potential “Geneva 2” peace initiative, but the key opposition Syrian National Coalition is divided over whether to participate.
The opposition umbrella group, which is currently locked in fractious talks in Istanbul to choose a new leadership, is suffering from deep divisions that some members say are due to regional bids for influence.
EU ministers, meanwhile, were locked in long talks over whether to roll over a wide-ranging package of sanctions against Assad’s regime, including a blanket arms embargo, which failing an agreement lapses on Friday.
Britain and France, with some support from Italy and Spain, want the arms embargo lifted to enable rebels to get weapons and help tilt the military balance on the ground, but other countries such as Germany and Sweden are opposed to this.
As the talks and negotiations rumbled on, on the ground opposition fighters battled regime troops aided by Hezbollah for control of the key rebel stronghold of Qusayr.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the fight has stirred international condemnation, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon saying he was “deeply concerned” by the group’s role.
Its actions have threatened to draw Lebanon ever deeper into Syria’s conflict, raising domestic tensions.
On Sunday morning, two rockets hit Hezbollah’s heartland in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the first time the Lebanese capital’s mainly Shiite southern suburbs have been targeted during the Syria conflict.
In the past week, 31 people have also been killed in clashes in Lebanon’s northern port of Tripoli between Assad supporters and opponents.
But in Syria, Hezbollah’s intervention has given Assad the upper hand in Qusayr, a key town for both the regime and the insurgents, where an army assault began eight days ago.
Official Syrian media said state television reporter Yara Abbas had been killed on Monday while covering the assault on the town.