US Secretary of State John Kerry in Munich, Germany, February 12, 2016..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
SARAJEVO – US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged for the first time on Monday that a ceasefire brokered in Syria two months ago has “fallen completely in a few areas” and is hanging by a thread in others.
The truce, formally known as a “cessation of hostilities,” is effectively over in the strategically significant city of Aleppo, where the regime of nominal Syrian President Bashar Assad has resumed air strikes on civilian targets and where Western- backed rebel groups – conflated and often operating near terrorist groups – are fighting back.
Over the last week, more than 250 people have been killed in air strikes on sites that have included hospitals, marketplaces and caravans of “white helmet” health workers.
Only two air forces operate over the regions that have been struck: those of Assad and Russia.
Russia has denied that its forces are conducting operations in Aleppo, so the US, UN and EU are now focused on pressuring Moscow to use its leverage with the Assad regime to end the bombing.
In Geneva for two days of crisis talks to salvage the cease-fire, Kerry said intra-Syrian peace negotiations in Switzerland could not realistically continue if the truce falls apart.
“You cannot have legitimate political talks about peace when the parties at the table have both signed up to an agreement which calls for a full cessation of hostilities countrywide, as well as a full delivery of humanitarian materials countrywide, and yet one party is blatantly violating that agreement,” Kerry said, standing alongside Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy for the crisis.
Kerry has been in constant consultation with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, according to the State Department, and de Mistura announced plans to travel to Moscow on Tuesday to continue pushing the effort.
But in a statement after a phone call between Kerry and Lavrov on Monday afternoon, the Russian Foreign Ministry simply said that Russia continues to support the cessation of hostilities and to push for its upkeep.
While Russia has the most leverage over Assad, that leverage is not absolute: The Assad government seems to believe that Moscow considers him indispensable, complicating the power dynamic.
“I don’t want to make any promises that can’t be kept,” Kerry said after generalizing that “progress” had been made toward a restoration of the truce.
“We are trying in the next hours to see if it is possible to reach agreement that can not just re-implement cessation, but create a path forward for the cessation to hold so that there isn’t one day of silence or two days of silence, but an ongoing process that relieves the people of Syria from this devastation, from this day-today killing machine that is being unleashed by the Assad regime.”
The Obama administration suspects that the Assad regime is intentionally targeting civilians and aid workers to create fear and panic among supporters of the opposition – and that Russia is supporting them in order to stoke a crippling refugee crisis for Europe.
Damascus denies intentionally targeting civilians, insisting it is only targeting terrorists of the state.
De Mistura noted that Russia, the US and UN are working to “reinvigorate” the “mechanism” by which international powers are monitoring violations of the truce.
Leaving Geneva after meeting with Kerry, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said Riyadh hopes the cease-fire remains on track.
The Saudi kingdom fiercely opposes Assad, and has organized the political leadership of the rebellion against him represented in Geneva, formally known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC).
“We hope that these efforts will lead to cessation of hostilities and the resumption of the political process that will lead to the establishment of the interim Governing Council that will assume the responsibilities of governing the country and that it will take away power from Bashar al-Assad, that it will work on constitution and elections to build a new Syria with no role for Bashar al-Assad in it,” al-Jubeir stated. “That’s our hope.”
Departing negotiations last month in protest over air attacks, HNC leadership publicly encouraged rebel groups to fight back in Aleppo. The Assad delegation characterized these statements as provocative.
The UN’s secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, also expressed “profound concern” on Monday about “the dangerous escalation of fighting in and around Aleppo and the intolerable suffering, counted in mounting deaths and destruction, it is causing among civilians.”
“The collapse of the cessation of hostilities will only bring more violence, death and destruction while further weakening efforts to find a negotiated solution to this brutal war,” Ban said.
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