Tillerson holds talks with Syria opposition in Amman
SAYS US HAS ‘FAIRLY WELL ADVANCED’ MIDDLE EAST PEACE PLAN DEVELOPED OVER MONTH
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Syrian opposition negotiators in Jordan yesterday for closeddoor talks in the wake of a January peace summit hosted by regime backer Russia.
The opposition and Kurdish groups had boycotted the congress, held just days after a ninth round of United Nationsled talks in Vienna failed to yield progress towards ending Syria’s devastating conflict.
The West views Russia’s Syria peace efforts with suspicion, concerned that Moscow is seeking to sideline the UN process.
But the US acting assistant secretary of state, David Satterfield, said yesterday that the fallout had been limited.
“We got in the end a communique which validated the UN role,” Satterfield said before Tillerson’s meeting in Amman. “So this game, this theatre that was Sochi... finally came out in a way that did no damage.”
Despite Moscow insisting Syrian society would be fully represented at Sochi, almost all of the 1,400 delegates were pro-regime. They agreed to set up a commission to re-write the country’s post-war constitution.
Mideast ‘peace plan’
The United States’s work on a new Middle East peace plan is “fairly well advanced”, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday, though he provided no details on an initiative which comes amid deep Palestinian scepticism about U.S. intentions.
Meanwhile, Russian news reports on Tuesday described the alarming scenario of American and Russian forces getting caught in inadvertent clashes, with an unknown number of Russian military contractors apparently killed in a ferocious US counterattack last week. But defence secretary Jim Mattis and other US officials said they had no such information on casualties, and the Kremlin did not confirm any Russian deaths.
What is not disputed is the fast-changing, often confusing nature of a battlefield in which forces of multiple countries are bumping up against one another, raising the prospect of violent collisions. Russian forces are supporting the Syrian regime in its war with opposition groups, some of which are backed by the United States. Elements of both sides are fighting the last remnants of Daesh in Syria.
Beyond doubt is the ferocious scale of the US attack on February 7, in response to what the Pentagon called a barrage of artillery and tank fire from several hundred “pro-regime” fighters in Deir Al Zor province, an area in eastern Syria where the last Daesh fighters have converged among oil fields. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of US air forces in the Middle East, told reporters a broad range of US air power was unleashed.
“As the hostile forces turned west and retreated, we ceased fire,” Harrigian said in a video teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon. In a second episode, the US struck a Russianmade T-72 battle tank on Saturday after it “took a shot at us” in the same general area of Deir Al Zor province, Harrigian said.
Russian media said Russian private contractors were part of pro-Syrian government forces that advanced on oil fields in the Deir Al Zor province and were targeted by the United States. The reports cited activists who said that at least four Russian citizens were killed in Syria on February 7. Russian media also cited unconfirmed claims that overall casualties could have been as high as 200 and Russians could have accounted for the bulk of them. Those claims couldn’t be verified.
Mattis, speaking to reporters on Tuesday while travelling in Europe, was adamant he knew of no Russian contractors killed in the fighting. “I don’t have any reporting” about Russians being among the casualties, he said.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, wouldn’t comment on the reports either, saying they needed to be verified.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other delegates arrive for a meeting in the Jordanian capital Amman yesterday.