UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Facing Western criticism over the halt to Syria peace talks, Russia said Friday it plans to present new ideas on how to restart peace efforts at a meeting of nearly 20 key nations on Feb. 11.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow hopes other members of the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich will also "shoulder responsibility" in restarting talks between the government and opposition.
Tensions were high during and after a closed Security Council briefing by Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy for Syria, over who was to blame for this week's suspension of the Syria talks.
Britain and France blamed the halt on the government's current offensive, backed by Russian airstrikes, against Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city.
Churkin accused unidentified Western nations of encouraging an opposition walkout from the talks, saying they have "no moral or formal ground to criticize us."
But France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delatte said the opposition couldn't be expected to negotiate "with a gun to their heads." And British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said Churkin "needs to look in the mirror and understand where the responsibility lies."
After years of deadlock, foreign ministers from key nations supporting different sides in the Syria conflict — spurred by the United States and Russia — met in Vienna in November and called for a cease-fire and the start of negotiations in early January.
The previously divided Security Council endorsed the peace process in a unanimous resolution in mid-December that calls for "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" in Syria within six months and U.N.-supervised elections within 18 months under a new constitution.
De Mistura said when talks were suspended on Wednesday that they would resume by Feb. 25 — and Churkin said Russia is "encouraged" that the U.N. envoy reiterated this on Friday.
But the government's new offensive against opposition strongholds has raised serious questions about opposition participation.
France's Delattre stressed that negotiations "cannot be a smoke screen allowing the regime to continue quietly its massacres." Britain's Rycroft said a strong package of confidence-building measures is needed "to help rebuild the faith of the Syrian opposition that is being bombarded" so the talks can resume by Feb. 25.
Churkin said Russia cannot stop unilaterally bombing.
"What about the terrorists and the opposition groups? Are they going to stop too? What about this American-led coalition? Are they going to stop too?" he asked.
Churkin said it was strange that opposition supporters — who for a long time said there needed to be political progress before a cease-fire — are now saying a cease-fire must take place before political negotiations.
All these issues, including humanitarian problems, need to be discussed by the two sides in Geneva, he said.
Churkin warned that new preconditions to resume talks, such as demanding that sieges be lifted or humanitarian access be granted, will only delay talks where those issues can be resolved.
Looking ahead, Churkin said he has no doubt that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry "are going to do their utmost" to re-energize the International Syria Support Group at the ministerial meeting in Munich next week and make sure that talks will resume.
"We cannot afford to be pessimistic," Churkin said. "We need to have even stronger concerted efforts in order to overcome the problems we are faced with with Syria, so this public recrimination is wrong."