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German Foreign Minister Steinmeier calls for 'breakthrough' in Syria conflict

Berlin has called for a "breakthrough" to resolve the Syrian conflict, a day ahead of the Munich Security Conference. The Syrian regime's Russia-backed offensive against rebels is expected to dominate the meeting.

"We need something like a breakthrough…If we do not break this spiral of violence and counter-violence, then this terrible civil war will definitely drag on and cause many more casualties," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on the eve of the annual Munich Security Conference.

UN-hosted negotiations among rebel groups and Assad's representatives stalled last week after opposition members refused to participate in the talks. Syria's leading opposition group, represented by the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), demanded a stop to "Russian aggression against the Syrian people." Speaking in Munich, HNC spokesman Salim al-Muslar said there was an urgent need to resolve the "humanitarian questions" in his country.

Infografik Registered Syrian Refugees

A diagram showing the number of Syrian refugees in different countries

Western countries have blamed Assad's Russia-backed offensive in Syria's northern Aleppo province for exacerbating the crisis. More than 500 people have died after the Syrian regime bombed rebel strongholds in the region. The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian crisis, saying more than 51,000 civilians have fled their homes. Over 30,000 are camped at the country's border to Turkey.

Russia 'exacerbating' crisis

"It has been Russian support for the Assad regime over the past months, and most recently in the siege on Aleppo, that has exacerbated, intensified the conflict," US State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner told journalists on Thursday. Moscow, with its airstrikes, had "put the political process in jeopardy," he added.

Syrien Armut in Aleppo

The UN has warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis in Aleppo

Toner also said US Secretary of State John Kerry had "spoken to the fact that given the disparate groups on the ground in Syria, the different factions and the different elements on the ground fighting each other, that this could worsen and could become a broader conflict."

The American comments came shortly after Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that any initiative by Gulf countries to send ground troops to Syria would result in a "permanent war." Reacting to Medvedev's comments, Toner said, "If that is Russia's concern, then they should look at what they're doing to support the Assad regime."

Ahead of a meeting of the Syria Contact Group on Thursday in Munich, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow has presented "quite specific" proposals for a ceasefire. He would not, however, confirm reports that the proposal called for the ceasefire to take effect as of March 1. That date would give Assad's troops and Russian bombers another three weeks to conduct an offensive that the UN has said could place some 300,000 people under siege.

The United States has called for an immediate ceasefire.

While members of the contact group, which is made up of 17 nations including Russia, the United States and other world powers, said they predicted talks in Munich to last long into the night, they also added that they expected little in terms of new agreements to come from the meeting.

More than 260,000 people have died since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. Several millions have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in other countries. The conflict has also led to a massive influx of migrants into Europe.

mg/sms (AFP, dpa)

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