Tuesday’s gathering of the top U.S. and Russian diplomats, and more than a dozen of their Arab and European counterparts, ended with ritual reaffirmation of a cease-fire that has all but disintegrated, and promises of future negotiations. But it left Syria no closer to peace.
The familiar storyline came as the 5-year-old civil war threatened to enter a darker phase as the United Nations denounced what it called a deliberate attack on a humanitarian convoy, which killed 20 civilians.
“Just when we think it cannot get any worse, the bar of depravity sinks lower,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
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The world body suspended aid deliveries and a Syrian human rights group reported that the government launched an offensive north of Aleppo in a bid to tighten the siege on rebel-held parts of Syria’s largest city.
Still, the diplomats insisted Syria’s cease-fire wasn’t dead. With few alternatives for trying to end the conflict, they pressed on with a strategy that appeared to impress few and convince no one.
“It’s the only show in town,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said bluntly of the talks that are now set to continue later this week.
The discussion led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lasted only about an hour, after the two met privately beforehand. Goals were modest, focused on holding onto what might be salvageable from a week-old truce that had at least temporarily reduced the bloodshed. Gone were the loftier ambitions of creating a new, U.S.-Russian military partnership against Islamic State militants and al-Qaida, once envisioned to start Tuesday.
No one spoke of a breakthrough.
“The cease-fire is not dead,” Kerry insisted, adding that unspecified “specific steps” would be weighed in a follow-up discussion later this week. The U.N. Security Council also will take up the Syria crisis on Wednesday, though diplomats also have abandoned hopes of a passing a resolution to endorse the U.S.-Russian truce deal reached earlier this month.
Rhetorically, at least, the diplomats expressed some hope. That was an improvement from Monday, when Syria’s Russian-backed government declared the cease-fire over, and Moscow and Damascus were harshly criticizing the United States for a mistaken air raid on Syrian soldiers over the weekend.
But it also reflected Washington’s desperation.
Despite numerous violations by the government and Syrian rebels, the U.S. has few other options for ending a conflict that has killed a half-million people, contributed to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II and allowed the Islamic State group to emerge as a global threat. President Barack Obama has made clear the U.S. will use military force only against IS and other extremist organizations, and not against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
Instead, Obama is determined to continue the diplomacy with Russia, Assad’s chief backer. He has publicly expressed doubts about the possibility of creating a viable peace process with Russia, but doesn’t appear to have a Plan B.
Since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, there have been countless high-level gatherings designed to stop the fighting and guide Syria to a political transition. Previous destinations included Istanbul, Paris, Rome, Vienna and Geneva, including assemblies with names such as “Friends of Syria” and the “London 11.” Tuesday’s was the “International Syria Support Group.” None has made a lasting impact.
The latest diplomatic iteration has centered on Kerry and Lavrov. Their deal after a marathon day of negotiations on Sept. 9 would have created a joint U.S.-Russian center to coordinate strikes on the Islamic State militants and al-Qaida-linked groups had the truce and unfettered aid deliveries in Syria been maintained for seven straight days. Neither commitment was met.
U.N. peace envoy Staffan de Mistura said all participants at Tuesday’s meeting reconfirmed support for the truce, even if Assad’s military and the rebels weren’t always respecting it. “The cease-fire is in danger, is being seriously affected,” he said, but only the U.S. and Russia could declare it over.
De Mistura also said he was “profoundly outraged” by Monday’s attack on an aid convoy, describing it as a “game changer” in forcing a serious discussion on how to stop the violence. Both Russia and Syria have denied involvement in the strike. The United Nations suspended all aid deliveries pending a security review.
But in a sign of the increasing messiness of Syria’s overlapping wars, Washington also was still on the defensive.
The coalition’s weekend attack killed 62 Syrian soldiers. Russia and Syria have called it proof of U.S. support for extremist groups. The American military said it monitored the target for two days, was certain it was a good Islamic State target, and is investigating how the mistake happened. The strike was called off when the Russians called their U.S. counterparts and informed them of the mistake.
“The atmosphere was quite heavy,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said of Tuesday’s meeting.
Ayrault, who has criticized Washington for not releasing the cease-fire agreement, said the U.S.-Russian negotiations “have reached their limits.”
“What have we seen these last few hours?” he asked. “Bombing is continuing. Aleppo is still threatened. The population is starving. And there is a humanitarian convoy that is attacked and there are dead. This is the reality. One must denounce this realty.”
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Lolita C. Baldor and Maria Danilova contributed to this report