U.S., Russia seal cease-fire in Syria
Kerry says deal could be ‘turning point’ of civil war
GENEVA — The United States and Russia early Saturday announced a breakthrough agreement on Syria that foresees a nationwide cease-fire starting Monday, followed a week later by a new military partnership targeting the Islamic State and al-Qaida as well as new limits on President Bashar Assad’s forces.
After a daylong final negotiating session, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said shortly after midnight Saturday that the plan could reduce violence in Syria and lead to a long-sought political transition, ending more than five years of bloodshed. He called the deal a potential “turning point” in a conflict that has killed as many as 500,000 people, if complied with by Syria’s Russian-backed government and U.S.-supported rebel groups.
The cease-fire begins at sundown Monday, Kerry said, coinciding with the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.
“We are announcing an arrangement that we think has the capability of sticking, but it is dependent on people’s choices,” Kerry said. “It has the ability to stick, provided the regime and the opposition both meet their obligations, which we — and we expect other supporting countries — will strongly encourage them to do.”
Kerry’s negotiating partner, Russian Foreign Minis- Russia’s Sergey Lavrov, left, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said “this is just the beginning of our new relations.” ter Sergey Lavrov, confirmed the agreement and said it could help expand the counterterrorism fight and aid deliveries to Syrian civilians.
He said Assad’s government was prepared to comply.
“This is just the beginning of our new relations,” Lavrov said.
The deal culminates months of frenetic diplomacy that included four meetings between Kerry and Lavrov since Aug. 26 and a lengthy face-to-face talk in China between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. The arrangement hinges on Mos- cow pressuring Assad’s government to halt all offensive operations against Syria’s armed opposition and civilian areas. Washington must persuade “moderate” rebels to break ranks with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate, and other extremist groups.
Both sides have failed to deliver their ends of the bargain over several previous truces.
But the new arrangement goes further by promising a new U.S.-Russian counterterrorism alliance, only a year after Obama chastised Putin for a military intervention that U.S. officials said was mainly designed to keep Assad in power and target more moderate antiAssad forces.
Russia, in response, has chafed at America’s financial and military assistance to groups that have intermingled with the Nusra Front on the battlefield. Kerry said it would be “wise” for opposition forces to separate completely from the Nusra Front, a statement Lavrov hailed.
The military deal would go into effect after both sides abide by the truce for a week and allow unimpeded humanitarian deliveries. Then, the U.S. and Russia would begin intelligence sharing and targeting coor- dination while Assad’s forces would no longer be permitted to target the Nusra Front; they would be restricted to operations against the Islamic State.
The proposed level of U.S.-Russian interaction has upset several leading national security officials in Washington, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter and National Intelligence Director James Clapper, and Kerry only appeared at the news conference after several hours of internal U.S. discussions.
After the Geneva announcement, Pentagon secretary Peter Cook offered a guarded endorsement of the arrangement and cautioned, “We will be watching closely the implementation of this understanding in the days ahead.”
At one point, Lavrov said he was considering “calling it a day” on talks, expressing frustration with what he described as an hourslong wait for a U.S. response. He then presented journalists with several boxes of pizza, saying, “This is from the U.S. delegation,” and two bottles of vodka, adding, “This is from the Russian delegation.”
The Geneva negotiating session, which lasted more than 13 hours, underscored the complexity of a conflict that includes myriad militant groups, shifting alliances and the rival interests of the U.S. and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran and Turkey and the Kurds.
Getting Assad’s government and rebel groups to comply with the deal may now be more difficult as fighting rages around the divided city of Aleppo, Syria’s most populous and the new focus of the war.
But as with previous blueprints for peace, Saturday’s plan appears to lack enforcement mechanisms.
Russia could, in theory, threaten to act against rebel groups that break the deal. But if Assad bombs his opponents, the U.S. is unlikely to take any action against him given Obama’s long-standing opposition to entering the civil war.
In addition to those killed, Syria’s conflict has chased millions from their homes, contributing to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. Amid the chaos, the Islamic State has emerged as a global terror threat.