- State Department can’t confirm two sides to meet in Geneva
- Russian minister’s in Swiss city waiting for his counterpart
The U.S. and Russia hit a renewed deadlock over efforts to strike a Syrian cease-fire deal as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry snubbed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was left cooling his heels in Geneva waiting for his American counterpart.
Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington Thursday that he had no announcement to make on Kerry-Lavrov talks in Geneva. “We’re just not at a point” to confirm a meeting “and that its worth his while” for Kerry to go, Toner said. “The remaining issues are on a technical level” and are being discussed among agencies in the U.S., he said.
Russia announced on Wednesday that Kerry and Lavrov had agreed to meet in the Swiss city on Sept. 8 and 9 for talks that they hoped would allow them to join forces in combating terrorists, expand humanitarian aid to civilians caught up in the war and restart Syrian peace negotiations. Even after the U.S. denied any such agreement, Russia insisted the meeting was still on track and Lavrov traveled from Moscow for it.
The conflicting messages were only the latest evidence of how much officials in Washington and Moscow remain at odds over a cease-fire deal aimed at easing Syria’s humanitarian crisis and paving the way for a political solution to end its 5 1/2-year civil war. The two sides had hoped to conclude a deal in Geneva almost two weeks ago and then again over the weekend in China, where world leaders had gathered for the Group of 20 summit, but came away empty-handed. In China, U.S. officials said Russia had backtracked on earlier agreements.
The U.S. has been locked in tough negotiations with Russia, whose military intervention in Syria last year reversed the course of the war in favor of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Kerry is willing to meet Lavrov to discuss remaining issues, Toner said, While “these are difficult processes,” he said the U.S. believes an agreement with Russia is still possible.
In Moscow, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday there are an “insignificant” number of issues to be decided for a compromise agreement on Syria and that talks with the U.S. are continuing.
Yet President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who met for more than an hour on Sept. 5 to try to reach a deal, don’t seem to see eye-to-eye. In a Sept. 1 interview, Putin said the two sides were “gradually heading in the right direction.” Speaking at the G-20 meeting in Hangzhou, China, Obama was more downbeat.
“Given the gaps of trust that exist, that’s a tough negotiation and we haven’t yet closed the gaps in a way where we think it would actually work,” Obama said Sept. 5.
The civil war in Syria has killed more than 280,000 people and sent millions fleeing to neighboring countries and Europe. It has also let Islamic State seize territory that it’s used as a base to direct and inspire terror attacks worldwide. A partial “cessation of hostilities” in Syria brokered by the U.S. and Russia in February quickly broke down, and broader talks in Geneva over a political solution to the crisis have stalemated.
The U.S. has proposed sharing intelligence with Russia to carry out strikes against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, now known as Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham. Under this plan, Syria’s air force would be grounded in parts of the country in an effort to halt the humanitarian crisis and end bombing of moderate opposition groups that are supported by the U.S. and its allies, while the various parties would come to the table for talks on a political settlement.
Assad continues to make gains with each passing day, particularly in the shattered northern city of Aleppo, so Russia has little incentive to come up with a deal that would impose a cease-fire, according to Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who’s now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“The chances of an American-Russian deal are getting smaller, not bigger,” Ford said. “The Syrian government is not prepared to compromise with the moderate opposition, and that’s why there’s still fighting in Aleppo. The Russians are not prepared to push Assad to make those compromises -- they never have been.”
Assad’s forces, backed by pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia and Russian air power, this week cut off the last rebel supply line to the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo, restoring a siege that was broken last month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Syrian troops and their allies also retook almost all the territory lost since a July 31 rebel offensive in south and southwestern Aleppo province, according to the group, which monitors the conflict through activists on the ground.