Syria may allow humanitarian aid to Damascus suburb

Jan. 13, 2014 at 4:46 PM
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PARIS, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- The Syrian government may allow humanitarian aid to certain besieged areas of the country, American and Russian diplomats in Paris said Monday.

With an international peace conference on Syria scheduled for Jan. 22 in Geneva, Switzerland, diplomats have been discussing actions that could be taken to alleviate suffering in Syria and set a positive tone for the conference, the New York Times said.

The Syrian government specified to Russia it seeks to target humanitarian aid for the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta where 160,000 people have gone without assistance for a year, the newspaper said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry he had spoken to the Syrian government, which indicated it would support humanitarian access in certain areas. Russia has been a major supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime.

"The regime may be prepared to open up a number of areas, specifically East Ghouta. It may be possible for convoys now to be able to access," Kerry said after meeting with Lavrov.

Kerry and his Russian counterpart differed, though, on whether Iran should attend the peace conference. During a news conference with Kerry and a top U.N. official, Lavrov repeated his country's call for Iran -- a key backer of Assad's regime -- to be allowed to attend the talks in Geneva, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Lavrov cited Iran's influence in the region and called U.S. opposition to Iranian presence at the talks "ideological."

"Iran's participation or non-participation isn't a question of ideology. It is a question of common sense," Kerry said. He said Iran doesn't meet U.S. criteria to attend the conference.

Iran said Sunday on its official television network Foreign Minister Javad Zarif would go to Damascus, Syria, within the next few days, MENA reported.

"If we receive an invitation without any preconditions, we will participate in the ... peace conference, but we won't act in order to receive an invitation," Zarif said in Beirut, Lebanon.

Tehran would be welcomed to the talks only if it accepted negotiating terms outlined in a previous round of negotiations, including creating a transitional government without Assad and his loyalists, Kerry said.

Following a Friends of Syria meeting Sunday, Kerry expressed confidence Syrian opposition leaders would attend the Geneva talks, MENA said.

Kerry met with National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba, whose organization includes the main opposition movement in exile.

"I am confident that he and others will be in Geneva. I am counting on both parties to come together," Kerry said.

The Friends of Syria is a group of mainly Western and Gulf countries opposed to Assad, who has waged a civil war with rebel forces for more than two years.

In a statement, the 11-nation Friends of Syria group said that once a transitional government was in place, "Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria."

The opposition has been reluctant to attend the Geneva talks without a commitment that Assad step aside, or at least stop using heavy weapons and open humanitarian corridors, Radio France Internationale reported.

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