Prospect of fresh US-Russia talks renews hopes for Syria ceasefire

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, told western foreign ministers that he hoped to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva over the next 48 hours, to try to agree a new cessation of hostilities in Syria.

The two men had been hoping to announce a deal at the G20 in China on Monday, but the agreement collapsed in acrimony after the US accused Russia of reneging on its previous commitments.

Explaining the decision to schedule a new meeting, the Russian foreign ministry said: “The ministers worked through the remaining details of the agreement on the establishment of a Russian-American cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups operating in Syria, the expansion of access for humanitarian aid and the launch of an intra-Syrian political process.”

But a state department spokesman, Mark Toner, said although Kerry had a 45-minute conversation with Lavrov on Wednesday, there was not yet an agreement to meet again.

“They talked about some of the remaining challenges they need to overcome on this arrangement. We’re not there yet, but as the president said in China the other day, the expectation is that they will meet again in order to continue discussions on how we get to an arrangement or an agreement,” Toner said.

He added: “These technical issues are complex and we have not been able to reach a clear understanding between us and Russia on the way forward. Until we get there, we are not able to say one way or another whether we are going to get there … If we get there, it does provide a way to bring an end to the conflict, and that’s worth pursuing at this point. But our patience isn’t infinite.”

A US official echoed Toner’s caution, saying: “We’re not fully confident we can reach an agreement.”

“A lot of the sticking points focus around Aleppo, around al-Nusra, around delineating between where Nusra is and the opposition is, and around the next steps and how we get to a nationwide cessation of hostilities.”

Kerry spoke of the decision on a video link to London, where foreign ministers gathered for a conference with the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the chief opposition negotiating body.

Russia and the US have been discussing for months the terms of a comprehensive deal in which the air force of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, is brought under the effective control of Russia, and the US and Russia jointly coordinate legitimate targets for the Syrians.
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The US wants fresh assurances that Russia will sanction Syria if it breaks the terms of the ceasefire, but the Syrian air force has said it cannot tolerate being effectively grounded in its own sovereign territory.

The proposed deal would include Jabhat al-Nusra – the powerful jihadi group that announced in July it had split with al-Qaida – among the opposition groups the Syrians could target.

The potential breakthrough gives a new relevance to a blueprint for peaceful transition released on Wednesday by the HNC.

The document, the most comprehensive transition programme ever released by the body, allows for a six-month negotiation leading to the formation of a transitional governing body, responsible for running Syria for 18 months prior to UN-sponsored local, parliamentary and presidential elections.

The HNC insists that Assad and his ruling clique would have to stand aside after six months, something the Syrian government dismisses as not credible. Disputes over Assad’s future status prevented the Geneva peace talks process in the spring from making any serious progress.
A Syrian boy is treated in hospital for breathing difficulties after an alleged chlorine gas attack in Aleppo.
A Syrian boy is treated in hospital for breathing difficulties after an alleged chlorine gas attack in Aleppo. Photograph: Thaer Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images

The HNC hopes its transitional timetable, with an emphasis on the role of women, the release of detainees, non-sectarian politics and pluralism, is a riposte to those that say there is no unified credible alternative to the Russia-supported Assad regime. The blueprint is also designed to persuade Hillary Clinton, the US Democratic presidential nominee, that a credible non-sectarian plan for a post-Assad Syria is available.

The document proposes a decentralised state in which Kurds are offered a degree of autonomy, but not the full independence sought by many Syrian Kurds inside the YPG militia. The HNC stresses it is not seeking vengeance against the entire Assad apparatus, but will allow many of his clique either to remain in post or avoid justice at the international criminal court.

But in a warning that Russia and the US alone cannot seal the fate of Syria, the chief opposition negotiator, Riyad Hijab, who defected from Assad’s government in 2012 after serving as prime minister, said the HNC would reject any agreement struck by Russia and the US if it differed significantly from the HNC’s terms.
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“If what the Russians and the Americans agree upon is very much different from what the Syrians aspire to, then we shall not accept it,” Hijab said. There is concern in parts of the heterodox HNC that Barack Obama, in search of a legacy in Syria, will scramble to secure a deal with Russia that many Syrians oppose.

Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, endorsed the HNC blueprint, saying that, if peace talks were to get back on track, “it is obviously critical that the world and all the interlocutors in Geneva should be able to see that there is a future for Syria that goes beyond the Assad regime”.

Following talks with the HNC, he said: “Listening to everybody here, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that with common sense and flexibility and energy, this vision and this plan that Dr Hijab and his colleagues have put forward can be put into effect.”

The occasion allowed Johnson to recant discreetly on a previous claim that the west might need to ally with Assad in order to crush its primary enemy inside Syria, Islamic State.

Fighting inside Syria continued this week, with claims that a chlorine gas attack had been mounted on Tuesday, hospitalising 100 in the city of Aleppo, the site of a brutal siege by the Syrian army. On Wednesday an airstrike in the same neighbourhood killed 10 civilians, activists said.

There were also reports that Iraqi Shia militias had entered the city to support rebels in the fight to prevent Aleppo from being encircled by the Syrian army.