The Obama administration opened a two-front campaign on Syria today with a push to end one war there and step up another.
As US Secretary of State John Kerry scrambled in Germany to negotiate the timing and conditions for a cease-fire between the Syrian government and moderate rebels, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter was in Belgium trying to rally new support for the fight against the Islamic State group.
Meanwhile, the United States and Russia traded allegations over the bombing of civilian areas around the besieged city of Aleppo as fighting there intensified, further fueling fears of a mass exodus of refugees.
The Russian Ministry of Defense rejected a Pentagon claim that Russian aircraft hit two hospitals in Aleppo and contended that US aircraft had operated over the city yesterday.
Ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said Russian jets hit targets no closer than 20 kilometers from Aleppo, and that two A-10 ground attack jets from the US Air Force had flown from Turkey to attack Aleppo.
US Army Col Steve Warren, the Baghdad spokesman for the US-led coalition against IS, called the Russian claim “a fabrication” and said the incident was an example of Russia’s “indiscriminate” use of force.
The spat complicates Kerry’s efforts with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to overcome deep differences between the two powers over a proposed cease-fire.
A truce is seen as critical to resuscitating peace talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition. They stalled last month before really starting, due largely to gains by Assad’s military with the heavy backing of Russian airstrikes.
Russia has proposed a March 1 cease-fire. The US and others see that as a ploy that only serves to give Moscow and the Syrian army three more weeks to try to crush Western- and Arab-backed rebels. The US has countered with demands for an immediate stop to the fighting, allowing peace talks to resume by February 25.
Neither Kerry nor Lavrov, who met hours before a larger gathering of the International Syria Support Group, would predict whether an agreement was possible.
“We’re going to have a serious conversation about all aspects about what’s happening in Syria,” Kerry said as their meeting got underway.
“Obviously, at some point in time, we want to make progress on the issues of humanitarian access and cease-fire. We will talk about all aspects of the conflict.”