Sunday 18 March 2018

US and Russia agree deal for Syria ceasefire

John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov during a press conference following their meeting in Geneva (AP)
John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov during a press conference following their meeting in Geneva (AP)

The US and Russia have announced a breakthrough agreement on Syria that foresees a nationwide ceasefire starting early next week.

The ceasefire will be followed by an unlikely new military partnership between the rival governments targeting Islamic State and al Qaida.

At a joint news conference after a marathon day of negotiations, US secretary of state John Kerry said the plan can 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 the conflict, if implemented by Syria's Russian-backed government and US-supported rebel groups.

The ceasefire begins at sundown Monday, Mr Kerry said, coinciding with the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.

"Today the United States and Russia are announcing a plan which we hope will reduce violence, ease suffering and resume movement toward a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria," Mr Kerry said. "We are announcing an arrangement that we think has the capability of sticking, but it is dependent on people's choices."

"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," he added.

Mr Kerry's negotiating partner, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, confirmed the agreement and said it could help expand the counter terrorism fight and aid deliveries to Syrian civilians under UN auspices that have been stalled for weeks.

"This is just the beginning of our new relations," Mr Lavrov said.

He said Syrian President Bashar Assad's government was informed of the accord, and was prepared to comply.

Mr Kerry added: "The United States is going the extra mile here because we believe that Russia, and my colleague, have the capability to press the Assad regime to stop this conflict and to come to the table and make peace."

Mr Kerry outlined several steps the government and rebels would have to take. They must now pull back from demilitarised zones, and allow civilian traffic and humanitarian deliveries - notably into the divided city of Aleppo where as many as 500,000 people have been killed in fighting.

"If Aleppo is at peace, we believe that the prospects for a diplomatic solution will brighten," he said. "If Aleppo continues to be torn apart, the prospects for Syria and its people are grim."

The deal ends months of frenetic diplomacy that included four meetings between Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov since August 26.

The arrangement hinges on Moscow 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 US-Russian counter-terrorism alliance, only a year after President Barack Obama chastised Russia for a military intervention that US officials said was mainly designed to keep Assad in power and target more moderate anti-Assad forces.

The deal includes intelligence-sharing and targeting co-ordination, a level of US-Russian interaction that has upset several leading national security officials in Washington, including defence secretary Ash Carter and National Intelligence director James Clapper. The joint military work would only begin after several days of adherence to the new ceasefire.

Mr Kerry appeared at the news conference after several hours of internal US discussions.

At one point, Mr Lavrov said he was considering "calling it a day" on talks, expressing frustration with what he described as an hours-long wait for a US response. He then presented journalists with several boxes of pizza, saying: "This is from the US 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 US 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 Aleppo.

Assad's government appeared to tighten its siege of the former Syrian commercial hub in the last few days, seizing several key transit points. Forty days of fighting in Aleppo has killed nearly 700 civilians, including 160 children, according to a Syrian human rights group. Volunteer first responders said they pulled the bodies of nine people, including four children, from rubble following air raids on Friday on a rebel-held area.

Syria's conflict has also chased millions of people from their homes, contributing to Europe's worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. Amid the chaos of fighting between Syria's government and rebels, the Islamic State group has emerged as a global terror threat.


Turkey's Foreign Ministry said it was pleased with the ceasefire deal which was "critical" for ending the fighting throughout Syria, and specifically Aleppo.

It said Turkey will deliver aid through the UN to Aleppo.

Turkey is a leading backer of the rebels fighting to overthrow Mr Assad. It launched a military incursion into Syria last month to battle the Islamic State group and halt the advance of US-backed Kurdish forces, which it views with suspicion.


Press Association

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