- Failure is second time in 10 days U.S. came away emptyhanded
- Two sides were pushing to ease humanitarian crisis in Syria
The U.S. and Russia again failed to reach a deal for a cease-fire in Syria despite a growing international outcry about the humanitarian catastrophe in the country.
Dashing optimism from earlier Sunday that agreement could be achieved, Secretary of State John Kerry emerged empty-handed from a two-hour meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Hangzhou, China, on the sidelines of a G-20 summit.
Two podiums had even been set up so Kerry and Lavrov could speak side by side at a media briefing. Officials scrambled moments before Kerry appeared to remove the second one. The two will meet again Monday morning.
"I’ve said all along we’re not going to rush,” Kerry told reporters. "An awful lot of technical things have been worked out. A lot of things are clear. But there are still a couple tough issues."
It was the second time in 10 days that Kerry and Lavrov had met in hopes of bringing about an agreement to rein in President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and allow in relief for civilians. After more than nine hours of talks in Geneva last week, the two said they made progress and only technical differences remained.
The Russian negotiators walked back on parts of the deal the U.S. thought had been agreed to earlier, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are private. The two sides now need to consult internally, they said.
The attempt to forge a cease-fire is part of a broad effort to halt the fighting and create space for talks on a political transition in Syria, after a February cease-fire collapsed. Backed by Russian warplanes, Assad’s forces have waged an air and ground campaign that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, sparked a humanitarian crisis and forced millions of Syrians to seek refuge in Europe.
Under a proposal floated by Kerry, the two sides would share intelligence to carry out strikes against an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Syria’s air force would be grounded in those and other areas, in an effort to halt the humanitarian crisis, stop bombing of the moderate opposition, and bring those sides back to the table for talks on a political settlement.
The disagreement Sunday signaled the two sides may be further apart than previously thought. President Barack Obama tamped down expectations for progress earlier in the day, saying the U.S. still had “grave differences” with Russia. Intervention by Russia in 2015 allowed Assad to reverse the tide against the rebels and regain ground lost to the opposition.
“Understandably, given the previous failures of cessations of hostilities to hold, we approach it with some skepticism,” Obama said in Hangzhou, where he and other world leaders are gathered for the G-20 meeting. “To the extent that there are children and women and innocent civilians who can get food and medical supplies and get some relief from the constant terror of bombings, that’s worth the effort.”
A key sticking point has been one of consequences: what happens if Assad doesn’t live up to his obligations under the deal? While U.S. special forces are operating on the ground, Obama has resisted threatening stepped-up U.S. military intervention for fear of getting pulled into another quagmire. The focus may shift back to demanding that Assad leave power, but Russia has resisted pressuring him to step down.
Another problem has been identifying which areas are controlled by the al-Qaeda linked group Nusra Front, now known as Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, and which by the moderate opposition. The U.S. has accused Russia and Syria of deliberately targeting opposition groups under the guise of fighting terrorists. Russia, in turn accuses the U.S. of sheltering terrorist groups.
Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the talks had not collapsed and the two sides were close to a deal. He said the focus remained on how to distinguish the “so-called moderate opposition from the terrorists.”
“Until we lay the last brick in a building, we can’t say that the results are achieved,” Ryabkov said.
Syria’s crisis has become more urgent because even as U.S.-Russia talks continue the country is becoming more militarized, Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations Envoy for Syria, said on Sept. 1. in Geneva.
“We will not have a solution to this conflict unless there is a genuine political process,” de Mistura said. “You can take over a city -- we already said it, you can actually destroy a city, empty a city -- but then, what is the next step?"
The civil war began with Assad’s crackdown on protesters demanding greater freedom during the Arab Spring of 2011. It has since evolved into a complex proxy war, with Assad getting support from Russia and Iran, while the U.S., Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states back those who seek to oust him.
Capitalizing on the chaos, Islamic State controls large swathes of the country, while Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham has emerged, sometimes mingling with or fighting side-by-side with more moderate rebels who could potentially feature in a political transition.
Complicating matters further, Kurdish groups have carved out control in north Syria, drawing in Turkish troops who crossed the border ostensibly to fight Islamic State but also to counter their spread.
“Our hope is never to see a belt of terrorism, a corridor of terrorism emerging in or around our region,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a meeting with Obama in Hangzhou on Sunday. “In order for that to be eliminated, Turkey will forge a very close cooperation and a solidarity with the coalition forces.”