World powers to hit pause button in Syria

(From left) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura at a press conference after the International Syria Support Group's meeting in Muni
(From left) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura at a press conference after the International Syria Support Group's meeting in Munich, Germany, on Thursday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

17 nations agree to implement cessation of hostilities in a week and deliver aid to besieged cities

MUNICH • World powers have agreed on an ambitious plan to cease hostilities in war-racked Syria within a week and dramatically ramp up humanitarian access at talks in Munich aimed at reviving the struggling peace process.

The 17 countries agreed "to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities to begin in a target of one week's time", on the way to a more formal ceasefire, said United States Secretary of State John Kerry after extended talks co-hosted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"That is ambitious," Mr Kerry said yesterday after all-day meetings. "The real test is whether all the parties honour those commitments."

If executed, the agreement, forged by the International Syria Support Group, would mark the first sustained and formally declared halt to fighting in Syria since the civil war began in 2011, early in the Arab uprisings. But even a formal ceasefire would be partial - it excludes the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Nusra Front, both designated as terrorist organisations by the United Nations - and highly fragile.

Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov also said that they had also agreed on the delivery over the next few days of desperately needed aid to besieged Syrian cities.

The two men sat next to each other, doing their best to appear cooperative after weeks of trading accusations over the accelerated Russian air campaign that has given new support to the government of Syria's President, Mr Bashar al-Assad.

At moments during a nearly hour-long news conference, Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov used the phrase "cessation of hostilities" and "ceasefire" interchangeably. But Mr Kerry acknowledged the first was more temporary, and "a ceasefire is more permanent", a recognised series of steps in international law.

What he envisions a week from now, Mr Kerry said, "is a pause".

But the practical effect should be "ending hostile activity" while food is air-dropped and driven into war-torn areas. Most are held by the government, some by rebel groups.

There are many reasons to question whether either the relief effort or a meaningful ceasefire will come to pass, or achieve the goal of ending the conflict.

But the announcement in Munich early yesterday marked the first time there was hope of a break in the violence since the civil war began in 2011. And it would be the first large-scale aid to the country, from where 4.4 million have fled and where millions more are internally displaced.

In the day-long meetings, all the major players seemed to recognise that Syria had reached a breaking point. Yet neither Mr Kerry nor Mr Lavrov could say whether leaders of all the fractious rebel groups have agreed to go along, or how Mr Assad's government would comply.

And it is clear that the US and Russia still have a sharp difference of opinion over which groups constitute "terrorists"; the Russians have been bombing some rebel groups that the US has been supplying, arguing that they are linked to the Nusra Front or other terrorist organisations. There is no evidence that that difference has been resolved.

Mr Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council who was to chair a UN meeting on Syrian humanitarian access later yesterday, said the agreement could be a breakthrough if pressure is put on the warring sides.

"We have high hopes that the parties in the International Syria Support Group, including Russia and the United States, will do everything they can to push for humanitarian access to civilians in need inside Syria," he said. "We need sustained and full access,"

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu wrote on Twitter that the agreement "is an important step on the way to finding a solution to the Syrian crisis".

Mr Lavrov also said the agreement announced yesterday called for more military cooperation between the Russian and US military, something the US has resisted. But he did not elaborate on what form that cooperation would take.

NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'World powers to hit pause button in Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe