U.S., Russia get closer to a deal on truce in Syria, John Kerry says

People gathered outside after at least three blasts hit Sayeda Zeinab, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. Natalia Sancha/Associated Press
People gathered outside after at least three blasts hit Sayeda Zeinab, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. Natalia Sancha/Associated Press

Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Sunday an agreement with Russia for an imminent, if “provisional,” partial truce inSyria, saying it largely awaited a conversation between President Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin to work out final details.

Mr. Kerry’s announcement came at the end of a day of meetings in Jordan. Just hours after he spoke, multiple suicide attacks claimed by the Islamic State ripped through the central city of Homs and a suburb of the capital, Damascus, killing more than 100 people and wounding dozens. One of the attacks was in an area of Homs where many Alawites, the sect of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, live and work. It was the target last month of another bombing claimed by the Islamic State.

It was the second time in 10 days that Mr. Kerry had announced a “cessation of hostilities” that would go into effect in days — a phrase that was carefully chosen to avoid all of the connotations of a full cease-fire. The first occasion was in Munich in the early-morning hours of Feb. 12. He said at the time it would go into effect a week later, which would have been last Friday. The interim time, he said, would be used to work out the “modalities” of the cease-fire, with the Russians responsible for getting the forces of Iran and Mr. Assad on board, and the United States for getting the agreement of the various disputatious opposition groups.

A woman and child who were injured in blasts Sunday in Sayeda Zeinab, a suburb of Damascus. SANA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A woman and child who were injured in blasts Sunday in Sayeda Zeinab, a suburb of Damascus. SANA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That deadline passed with no changes on the ground, except for the beginnings of deliveries of relief aid to five besieged Syrian towns. State Department officials later said the deadline was more a target to keep momentum going rather than a hard deadline, but in the days leading up to it, Mr. Kerry spoke frequently with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. The two men are supposed to be the co-chairmen of a task force to put in effect the cessation of hostilities.

In Amman, Jordan’s capital, on Sunday, Mr. Kerry said that after another round of conversations with Mr. Lavrov, he emphasized “the urgent need to achieve a full cessation of hostilities in the shortest time frame possible.”

If so, Mr. Kerry, perhaps cautious about announcing another deadline that may not hold up, was vague about the timing. “We have reached a provisional agreement in principle on the terms of a cessation of hostilities that could begin in the coming days,” he said. “It is not yet done, and I anticipate that our presidents — President Obama and President Putin — may well speak somewhere in the next days or so, in order to try to complete this task.”

Mr. Kerry is known as an eternal optimist when it comes to negotiations: That paid off in his relentless pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, and again with the global climate change pact reached in Paris at the end of last year. It failed in his first big project as secretary of state, an effort to revive the Israel-Palestinian negotiating process.

But Syria remains his biggest test, a humanitarian disaster that many in the Obama administration concede, at least in private, they responded to insufficiently. Mr. Kerry seemed testy about his critics on Sunday, telling reporters: “Now, a lot of cynics have criticized our diplomatic efforts. But I want to point out very clearly they have not offered a realistic alternative that actually decreases the bloodshed and ends the conflict.

“Nobody would like to see our diplomatic efforts move more quickly than I would,” he said. “But the truth is we are, in fact, making progress, even as I stand here today. There is aid now getting through.”

He concluded, “We are closer to a cease-fire today than we have been.” The alternative, at this late date, he warned, could be “the complete destruction of Syria itself.”

Part of the complication is that the cease-fire envisioned by Mr. Kerry and the Russians is a partial one. It would exempt attacks on the Islamic State and on Al Nusra, both recognized as terrorist organizations by the United Nations. Russia maintains that because elements of Al Nusra remain in Aleppo, where it has conducted a brutal air campaign, the bombing of that city can continue. Mr. Kerry and the White House see that as an excuse to bomb the opposition groups fighting Mr. Assad — and whom the United States has helped arm.

In a statement released on Sunday, the leader of the opposition’s negotiating committee, Riad Hijab, said that there was “preliminary approval for a temporary truce,” but under the condition of “guarantees that will force Iran, Russia and their militias to stop fighting.”

Mr. Kerry’s aides say one reason he does not want to race into a cessation of hostilities is to minimize chances of early violations that would imperil the effort from the beginning. But they also know that violations are inevitable. The task force Mr. Kerry is running with Mr. Lavrov is trying to set up a process for monitoring and arbitrating those so that the response is not a return to general warfare.

The dire need for an end to the violence in Syria and the difficulties of achieving it were made clear in the attacks on Sunday.

At the same time, government forces backed by Russian airstrikes pushed their offensive against the rebels in what many analysts believe is an effort to solidify gains before any peace talks begin.

While most of Syria’s rebels seek to topple Mr. Assad, and some would probably accept a political agreement to end the war, the Islamic State seeks to expand its self-declared caliphate and is at war with everyone.

The group would clearly disregard any agreement between the government and the rebels.

Sunday’s attacks, both carried out by pairs of suicide bombers, hit targets that are important to the government, although most of those killed were civilians.

At least three blasts struck the Damascus suburb of Sayeda Zeinab, home to an important Shiite shrine, killing more than 60 people and wounding 180, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict from Britain through a network of contacts in Syria.

Some reports suggested the bombers had detonated a car bomb before blowing themselves up, causing the multiple blasts.

In Homs, the attackers blew up two car bombs on a major thoroughfare, killing at least 46, the Observatory said.

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