BEIRUT — Diplomats on Monday pushed for a limited cease-fire in Syria, a prisoner exchange and better access for aid efforts before a peace conference scheduled to begin next week in Switzerland.
At a news conference in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that he and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had discussed measures to "set the stage for success."
One potential area for a cessation of hostilities, Kerry said, was the embattled northern city of Aleppo, divided for 18 months between government and opposition forces and also the site of recent rebel infighting.
However, there was no indication from inside Syria that a cease-fire was in the works. The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported Monday that pro-government forces had consolidated gains north and east of Aleppo.
Several previous cease-fire efforts have collapsed during a civil war that is now almost 3 years old. Some local truces have held.
Each side is believed to hold hundreds, if not thousands, of captives. Exchanges of prisoners, hostages and kidnapping victims have occurred previously, and the government has touted prisoner releases as evidence of its good faith.
With millions of Syrians in need of aid, the Russian foreign minister said the Syrian government, which is a close ally of his country, had declared its willingness to open the way to give humanitarian convoys access to besieged districts in and around the capital, Damascus, including the eastern Ghouta area.
However, the Syrian news agency reported that "armed terrorist groups" — the government's term for rebels — had opened fire on a United Nations aid convoy headed for Yarmouk, an area of south Damascus where several thousand civilians are reported to be trapped.
U.S., Russian and U.N. officials have endorsed the peace talks scheduled to begin Jan. 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. The rise in Syria of radical Islamist rebel factions, including several linked to Al Qaeda, has underscored the need for a negotiated settlement, diplomats said.
"If disorder is allowed to continue to grow, it is extremists who will benefit, and it's all the people who want a peaceful solution and stability who will lose," Kerry said.
Despite the diplomatic push, several key issues remain unresolved. It is still unclear whether the main U.S.-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, will attend. Some rebel groups in Syria have denounced the talks as a sellout that will prolong the rule of President Bashar Assad.
Syrian officials reject U.S. demands that the talks lead to a transitional administration excluding Assad. On Monday, official media warned against such "preconditions, conceptions, dreams or fantasies" in advance of the talks. Syrian officials have hinted that Assad may contemplate running again in elections scheduled for this year.
Also unclear is whether Assad ally Iran will be among the 30 or so nations attending. U.S. officials have balked at inviting Iran while backing the participation of Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival and a major supporter of the Syrian rebels.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times