The United States tried Monday to move past localized, short-term cease-fires in Syria by announcing that an enduring, nationwide truce would be restored. Yet that new approach was immediately called into doubt as Syria’s military extended only a local cease-fire, in the hard-hit area of Aleppo, by 48 hours. Paris, AP/ UNB News Agency Reported.
The chaos surrounding the latest bout of diplomacy, with the U.S. and Syria offering what seemed like conflicting versions of events, underscored the profound difficulty in getting the warring parties to even agree on what they’ve agreed on, much less lay down arms for good. The announcements came as world leaders meeting in Paris struggled to get faltering Syria peace talks back on track.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, announcing a new U.S.-Russia agreement, said it would “reinstate a nationwide cessation of hostilities,” diplomatic-speak for the collapsed cease-fire the U.S. and Russia brokered in February. He said Russia had also committed to limiting the Syrian government’s ability to fly over civilian areas where President Bashar Assad’s military has been accused of violating the cease-fire.
But Kerry cautioned that the agreement itself meant little if it was not backed up by the parties on the ground.
“These are words on a piece of paper. They are not actions,” Kerry said after a meeting that included the head of the High Negotiations Committee, an umbrella group of Assad’s Western-backed opponents. “It is going to be up to the commanders in the field and the interested parties – which includes us.”
In Damascus, Syria’s military said a five-day cease-fire in Aleppo and its rural areas, set to expire for midnight, would instead be extended two more days, raising the prospect that additional, piecemeal cease-fires would continue to be announced. Brutal violence in Aleppo has killed nearly 300 civilians in recent days, and airstrikes hit several areas there Monday even as Kerry was discussing the cease-fire in Paris.
The U.S. and Russia have been working to put the broader truce back together through a series of short-term cease-fires in cities where heavy violence has broken out, including Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The hope is that quelling the fighting, along with a renewed show of global support, will clear the way for the parties to resume the indirect, U.N.-led talks.
Yet enforcing any cease-fire has been made nearly impossible by an exception built into the original cease-fire: Attacks are still allowed against the Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Those groups are common enemies of the U.S., many of the opposition groups and Assad, but they are fighting in the same areas, making it difficult to distinguish which strikes violate the cease-fire and which ones don’t. The confusion has fueled accusations that Syrian and Russian forces are using the Nusra Front as an excuse to ignore the cease-fire and bomb opposition-held areas.
In their statement, the U.S. and Russia committed to developing a “shared understanding” of where the Islamic State and the Nusra Front hold territory. Clarifying which areas are fair game and which are off limits is seen as a key step toward eventually reviving the peace talks.
Ahmed Saoud, a top commander of a U.S.-backed rebel faction from the Free Syrian Army, said his group supports restoring the nationwide cease-fire but cast doubt that Assad would respect it. He said his group and other FSA units were bombed Monday by Assad’s warplanes in the northern Idlib province, near Aleppo, where the Nusra Front is also strong.
“We are hoping for the best,” Saoud said by telephone. “But we don’t trust the regime.”
The U.S. attempt to revive a nationwide truce came as nations worked to get Syria’s government and opposition groups back to the table next week in Vienna, where negotiations to secure a political transition sputtered last month. The High Negotiations Committee essentially left the talks after accusing Assad’s forces of violating the truce and blocking aid to hard-hit areas.
The next round of talks “should take place next week,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said as he emerged from a meeting with Kerry, the head of the opposition coalition and leaders from other nations backing the opposition. Diplomats have floated May 17 as a possible start date.
Ayrault added that Iran, an Assad ally, should be involved. In a nod to past commitments made and broken, he said he hoped the new U.S.-Russia agreement was “not just yet another declaration.”
“It must be respected,” Ayrault said.
There are still no indications the parties are any closer to agreement about whether Assad can be part of the future government, long the chief sticking point in Syria’s civil war.
While in Paris, Kerry also met with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, a U.S. ally eager to help Syria’s opposition by bolstering their military capability. The State Department said Kerry and al-Jubeir “stressed the importance of all sides fully respecting the cessation of hostilities” and also consulted on the U.S.-led fight against IS.