BRUSSELS: The European Union (EU) backed United Nations efforts on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) to arrange a ceasefire in Syria’s second city Aleppo as one of the few options left to help end a conflict which has claimed more than 200,000 lives.
EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said the UN’s planned “freeze” on the ground would ease the desperate plight of civilians caught up in the fighting and offer some way forward after repeated efforts to end the war had failed.
The bloc’s 28 foreign ministers accordingly endorsed efforts by UN Syria special envoy Staffan de Mistura to bring about a “strategic de-escalation” in Aleppo and possibly other areas, she said after chairing a regular meeting in Brussels.
“It could be one possible way that a reduction of violence is possible in Syria and could even lead to a political process in the country” which was absolutely essential to a Syrian-led peace process, she said.
De Mistura’s efforts necessarily include talks with the Damascus government and reporters asked Mogherini if support for his freeze plan implied an acceptance that President Bashar al-Assad still had a role to play.
She replied that the EU did not and would not talk to Assad but conceded that “he is part of the reality.”
The EU, supporting the UN, was working to bring about “a Syria without Assad and without Islamic State,” she said, referring to the jihadist extremist group which has made huge gains in Syria and neighboring Iraq in the fallout from the war.
The ancient city of Aleppo has been fought over mercilessly since a popular uprising against Assad began in 2011.
Damascus wants the rebels to hand over their heavy weapons and allow the return of local administration officials to Aleppo.
The rebels in turn want a guarantee that the freeze will be total and not simply allow Damascus to redeploy its troops elsewhere.
The Syria crisis dominated Monday’s meeting, with ministers fearing instability across the Middle East and the prospect of EU citizens going to fight alongside IS and other extremist groups in a war from which they could return home dangerously radicalized.
The ministers also reviewed the situation in Ukraine ahead of a meeting later on Monday of the EU-Ukraine Association Council attended by the country’s premier, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The council was set up under a landmark association accord, which sparked the current crisis when then pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych ditched the deal late last year, sparking riots which led to his ouster.
The EU has adopted progressively tougher sanctions against Russia for its subsequent intervention in Ukraine and its March annexation of Crimea which sparked a conflict claiming more than 4,600 lives since.
The foreign ministers meeting also discussed Bosnia, endorsing plans for Brussels to get a written government commitment to a program of political and economic reforms needed to put the small divided Balkans country back on track to closer ties and ultimately EU membership.