Kerry Says Syria Truce Near Reach as Suicide Bombers Kill 140

JORDAN-US-DIPLOMACY

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Photographer: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP via Getty Images
  • Cease-fire agreement could be announced soon, Kerry says
  • Islamic State responsible for attacks in Homs, Damascus areas

A limited cease-fire in Syria may be reached soon after Russia and the U.S. agreed provisionally on its terms, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, as the two powers backing opposing sides of the conflict pressed efforts to halt five years of bloodshed.

Underscoring Syria’s volatility, suicide bombers killed at least 140 people Sunday in Shiite areas of Homs province and a southern Damascus suburb, according to the U.K.-based Observatory for Human Rights and the state-owned SANA news agency. Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks. In southeast Turkey near the Syrian border, Turkish forces killed 10 members of the Kurdish PKK militia in a clash that left three soldiers dead, the Turkish military said.

While Kerry’s announcement drew skeptical reactions, scaling back the violence has become even more urgent for the U.S. amid mounting concerns that Turkey and Saudi Arabia will become more heavily engaged in the conflict. The balance has shifted in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor since Russia intervened militarily on his behalf in September, entangling allies and foes even deeper in a proxy war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people and displaced millions more.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

Speaking from Jordan on Sunday, Kerry said he discussed the truce proposal with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov but declined to provide details. Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed on its website that the two men discussed truce conditions.

“There is a stark choice for everybody here,” Kerry said from the Jordanian capital, Amman. “Will every single party agree automatically? Not necessarily.”

Radicals Excluded

The cessation of hostilities is due to apply to all armed groups except for Islamic State militants, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and any other groups listed as terrorist organizations by the United Nations.

The move demonstrates the U.S. and Russia can work together despite differences, though a deal is unlikely in the short-term, according to William Lawrence, associate director for the Middle East and North Africa at Control Risks in Dubai.

“Ultimately, a successful Syria deal has to be more bottom-up than top-down,” Lawrence said. “But there’s no question that there is some important progress in the American-Russian conversation.”

Munich Talks

There have been three major attempts to end the fighting in Syria that began in March 2011. The latest round of negotiations broke down in early February, and were followed by talks in Munich that aimed for a partial cessation of hostilities by Feb. 19. But the fighting has ground on, including the two blasts Sunday in the Shiite suburb of Sayyida Zainab south of Damascus, where at least 83 died, and al-Zahraa in the city of Homs, that killed 57, according to the monitoring organization.

Syrians gather at the site of a double car bomb attack in the Al-Zahraa neighbourhood in Homs on Sunday.
Syrians gather at the site of a double car bomb attack in the Al-Zahraa neighbourhood in Homs on Sunday.
Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

Recent gains by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters have triggered artillery barrages from Turkey, which fears the Kurds’ growing power will embolden the autonomy ambitions of its own Kurdish minority. The U.S. alliance with the Syrian Kurds has strained relations with Turkey, which nevertheless promised U.S. President Barack Obama to stop the shelling if the Munich truce is implemented, according to Hurriyet newspaper.

Like other attempts at halting the fighting, this one, too, elicited doubts.

“How are you going to impose a truce while you’re excluding major players?” Ibrahim Fraihat, senior foreign policy fellow at Brookings Doha Center, said by phone.

He also questioned the parties’ commitment to a pause in fighting. With Assad’s forces making progress in the north, “they don’t see an incentive to impose or to abide by a truce,” Fraihat said.

Assad’s Advance

A Syrian government offensive backed by Russian airstrikes has overshadowed the diplomacy. Assad’s army captured at least 18 villages east of Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city and once a thriving commercial hub, SOHR said on its website.

In an interview with El Pais newspaper, Assad said his troops are advancing toward Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of Islamic State fighters, but are still far away.

The U.S. and its allies, which have been arming Assad’s foes including radical Islamists, accuse Russia of targeting moderate opposition groups rather than Islamic State. In recent interviews, Assad has declared his intention to retake control of the whole country, saying a durable cease-fire would first and foremost require “preventing terrorists from strengthening their positions.”