The US and Russia announced a plan Friday to bring about a ceasefire in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
“Today we are announcing an arrangement that we think has the capability of sticking but it’s dependent on people’s choices,” Kerry said in Geneva.
Appearing alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kerry said the pact calls for the Syrian government and the opposition to respect a nationwide ceasefire scheduled to take effect at sundown on Monday.
He added that the accord will also prevent the air forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from flying combat missions anywhere that the opposition is present, calling this provision the “bedrock of the agreement,” labeling Assad’s air force the “main driver of civilian casualties” and migrant flows.
“That should put an end to the barrel bombs, an end to the indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighborhoods,” Kerry said.
Kerry and Lavrov said that once the cessation of hostilities holds for seven days, the US and Russia would begin working on military coordination in an effort to target al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the al Nusra Front.
“Going after Nusra is not a concession to anybody, it is profoundly in the interest of the United States to target al Qaeda,” Kerry said, saying the group was planning attacks both in and outside of Syria, including attacks directed at the US.
“If groups within the legitimate opposition want to retain their legitimacy, they need to distance themselves in every way possible from Nusra and Daesh,” Kerry added.
Kerry said this cooperation would entail “some sharing of information,” with Russia pertaining to the delineation of the various groups on the battlefield. After the seven-day cessation of hostilities and delivery of aid, “US and Russian experts will work together to defeat Daesh and Nusra,” Kerry added.
Lavrov said that the Syrian regime had been informed of the terms of the arrangement and was prepared to adhere to them.
Kerry also said that the accord would allow for humanitarian access to the besieged areas of Syria, such as Aleppo, and provide for the creation of a demilitarized areas around that city.
Kerry reiterated several times that the deal was dependent on the adherence of all parties, both regime and opposition, and not built on trust.
“It is an opportunity and not more than that until it becomes a reality,” Kerry said.
Months of effort
The landmark agreement comes after months of unsuccessful efforts to come to terms on a ceasefire between Assad’s government and moderate rebels that would expand humanitarian access for hundreds of thousands of Syrians, efforts that were met by public skepticism from both the White House and the Pentagon.
The final announcement included some last-minute drama as the press conference announcing the deal was delayed several times. At one point, Lavrov emerged from negotiations to signal that the delay was due to officials in Washington who were holding up the accord’s approval.
“We are there. I don’t know where our friends are but I believe it is important for them to check with Washington. I apologize for the delay but we cannot help it,” Lavrov told reporters who had assembled to hear the announcement.
He later appeared to mock the US delay saying, “It takes five hours for our friends to check with Washington,” and telling reporters, “I am sorry for you.”
While awaiting word from Washington a light-hearted moment occurred when the Russian minister orchestrated the delivery of pizzas and two bottles of Russian vodka to the waiting press, saying, “The pizza was from the US delegation, the vodka was from the Russian delegation.”
Officials involved in the negotiations had been less than optimistic about a possible agreement in the days running up to the latest round of talks in Geneva, with one senior official traveling with Kerry saying, “We are going to try but our patience is not infinite.”
“We are not going to keep going if we don’t reach a conclusion relatively soon. We need to be moving very close to a deal and at some point we need to reach that deal,” the official added.
Greater cooperation between US, Russia
The new US-Russia strategy hinges on deeper cooperation between the US and Russian military against extremist groups operating in Syria, particularly ISIS and Nusra Front. The two sides are also holding talks on coordinating more closely the air operations they are both conducting in Syria.
But the US has resisted coming to an agreement due to Russian and Syrian regime actions against civilians in Aleppo.
The US wants a nationwide ceasefire in Syria between the regime and the rebels in order to create the conditions for UN-led political talks to end the five-year war. The US-backed moderate opposition has refused to resume the UN-led talks unless a cessation of hostilities take hold and the regime and Russia end the siege and bombing of Aleppo.
“The opposition tells us they want to reach a deal with the Russians if in fact it would stop some of the worst forms of violence against the Syrian people,” a second senior administration official said.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, appeared with Kerry and Lavrov after the announcement to signal the UN’s backing of the new agreement.
Earlier Friday, he had said an agreement would make “a major difference” in terms of the cessation of hostilities and have “a major impact” on the delivery of humanitarian aid
But both President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter have had tough words for Russia in recent days, dimming the prospect of a deal on a ceasefire and closer military cooperation. The US and Russia are both ostensibly fighting ISIS in Syria, but America has charged that Russia has mostly focused on bombing groups opposing Assad, a close Moscow ally. Some of those groups are supported by the US.
Obama has questioned whether a deal was possible given the “gaps of trust” between the two countries after meeting in China Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20.
The decision to deepen cooperation with Moscow was already controversial, given the Obama administration’s public criticism of Russia’s role in Syria. A cessation of hostilities negotiated between Kerry and Lavrov in February fell apart within weeks and efforts to reach a political settlement in the war-torn country are on the verge of collapse.
Asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Friday on “The Situation Room” if he trusted Russia in a deal like this, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said no.
“I think it’s good and I applaud Secretary Kerry because I think the effort needs to be made. The only way to stop the carnage in Syria is to get some sensible transition away from Assad and the Russians are key to that,” Smith said. “I think in the meantime if we can get humanitarian aid to some of these places that are suffering, I mean that’s a win, but at the end of the day, Syria will not make a successful transition to a reasonable government until Assad agrees to leave.”