Avoiding a siege of Aleppo remains goal for Washington
GENEVA—Secretary of State John Kerry
and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are pressing ahead with talks on a nationwide cease-fire agreement in Syria that would include closer military cooperation against terrorist groups.
Officials traveling with Mr. Kerry played down expectations for the latest round of discussions aimed at curtailing violence
in the more than five-year-long civil war that is estimated to have killed more than 400,000 people. The meeting follows talks earlier this week in China and last month in Geneva.
“We can’t guarantee in any way at this point that we are on the cusp of finishing,” a senior official traveling with Mr. Kerry said. The official said the remaining gaps are highly technical, though the U.S. delegation wouldn’t be in Geneva if officials didn’t think there was a chance for a deal or at least progress.
The U.S. wants to make sure that any arrangement guarantees Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will stop bombing his people and allows for humanitarian access. Russia, for its part, has said it wants to make sure that the U.S. separates terrorist groups from opposition fighters in cities like Aleppo, where regime forces and the Syrian opposition
have engaged in intensified clashes in recent months. The U.S. said it wouldn’t agree to anything that allowed for a siege of Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city before the war, to continue.
“We need to see a situation where it’s clear within whatever is being agreed with the Russians that there won’t be a siege of Aleppo,” a second senior official traveling with Mr. Kerry said.
The officials said the talks could continue beyond Friday but wouldn’t go on indefinitely.
“If we conclude that it’s just a waste of time and that—and it’s being dragged on for no other purpose than to gain time—then there will be no purpose in us continuing,” the second official said.
The Syria talks are taking place amid growing tensions between Moscow and Washington. At issue other than the conflict in Syria conflict are a 2015 cease-fire reached in Ukraine that hasn’t been fully implemented and growing U.S. concern that Russian hackers are targeting U.S. electoral systems.
Under the plan Mr. Kerry put forward in July, the U.S. and Russia would share information and coordinate air attacks against the Syria Conquest Front, which was formerly known as the Nusra Front and was linked to al Qaeda. In exchange, Mr. Assad’s air force would halt all operations, and U.S. and Russian airstrikes would target only Islamic State and the Syria Conquest Front.
Since then, the diplomacy has been complicated by increased fighting in Aleppo, where members of the Syrian Conquest Front have increasingly become more mixed with moderate opposition fighters. Russia wants the U.S. to ensure that opposition fighters be separated from the terrorist groups
The U.S. and Russia had announced a cease-fire agreement in February that has largely fallen apart. The most recent round of diplomacy is intended to repair what U.S. officials believe led to its collapse, including the Assad regime’s frequent violations of the accord without consequences and the rise of the Syrian Conquest Front, formerly the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, as the violence has continued on the ground.
President Barack Obama in China said he was skeptical that the U.S. and Russia could reach a deal, and if they did, that Mr. Putin would abide by it over the long term. The U.S. has entered into agreements with Russia on Syria and Ukraine, only to have them unravel.