Thursday 22 August 2019

John Kerry: Syria ceasefire could be weeks away

US secretary of state John Kerry wipes an eye as he leaves the Elysee Palace after meeting French president Francois Hollande (AP)
US secretary of state John Kerry wipes an eye as he leaves the Elysee Palace after meeting French president Francois Hollande (AP)

A ceasefire between Syria's government and its opposition could be just weeks away from reality, US secretary of state John Kerry has said.

His comments came as he visited Paris to show solidarity with France after Friday's terror attacks.

Speaking at the residence of the US ambassador to France, Mr Kerry said the ceasefire envisaged by the political process agreed on in Vienna on Saturday would massively help efforts to fight the Islamic State (IS) group, which said it carried out the Paris attacks that killed 129 people, as well as end the drawn-out Syrian conflict, which has gone on for more than four years.

"That's a gigantic step," Mr Kerry said. "If we can get that done, that opens up the aperture for a whole bunch of things.

"We're weeks away conceivably from the possibility of a big transition for Syria and I don't think enough people necessarily notice that. But that's the reality."

"We are not talking about months, we are talking about weeks hopefully," he said.

Saudi Arabia is expected to host a meeting of Syrian opposition figures by mid-December, at which they are to agree on a delegation to send to talks with representatives from President Bashar Assad's government. Once those negotiations begin, a ceasefire is to take effect, according to the agreement reached in Vienna.

Such a ceasefire would free nations supporting Syria's various factions to concentrate more on IS, which is ineligible for the truce and has come under greater military scrutiny since Friday's attacks in Paris.

"Out of this event in Paris will come an even greater level of vigilance and co-operation in some places that may have been a little bit less concerned about things hitting them in certain parts of the world," Mr Kerry said.

Earlier, Russia said its investigation into the crash of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula determined it was brought down by a bomb. An IS affiliate had already claimed responsibility for downing the plane. President Vladimir Putin has vowed to hunt down those responsible and punish them.

Mr Kerry began his day in meetings at the US embassy in Paris and with French president Francois Hollande.

With Mr Hollande, Mr Kerry said the civilised world must boost its efforts to combat IS by going after the group at its core. He said the plane downing, along with recent attacks in Lebanon and Turkey, made it clear that more pressure must be brought to bear on the Islamic extremists.

"My sense is everybody understands that with Lebanon's attacks, with what's happened in Egypt, with Ankara, Turkey, and attacks in Paris, we have to step up our efforts to hit them at the core where they're planning these things and also obviously to do more on borders in terms the movement of people," he said.

Mr Hollande plans to visit Washington within the next week to meet President Barack Obama to discuss further co-operation on fighting Islamic extremism and dealing with Syria.

Before seeing Mr Hollande, Mr Kerry met diplomats from the US embassy to thank them for their service. In his comments, Kerry drew a distinction between Friday's attacks and the January attack against French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which extremists said they targeted for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

"There's something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that," Mr Kerry said, noting there was "a sort of particularised focus" and "rationale" behind that attack.

"This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn't to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorise people. It was to attack everything that we do stand for."

Those remarks drew criticism from many in the US, including politicians, who said Mr Kerry was legitimising the Charlie Hebdo attack.

"There was absolutely nothing legitimate or rational about the slaughter of 10 newspaper staff and two police officers in Paris earlier this year," said Republican Edward Royce, the chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

"Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are pillars of our free world and we can never allow radical Islamists to use these fundamental rights to justify their evil acts. Secretary Kerry is plain wrong and needs to correct the record."

PA Media

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