Russia and US reach tentative agreement for Syria ceasefire

Pause in fighting to begin on Monday night, allowing humanitarian aid to flow – with Russian and US forces set to launch joint airstrikes against extremists

The US and Russia have agreed a tentative ceasefire deal for Syria, intended to lead the way to a joint US-Russian air campaign against Islamic State and other extremist groups and new negotiations on the country’s political future.

The deal was announced by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Friday night after 13 hours of talks in Geneva and a tense wait while Kerry consulted others in his administration with a phone call to Washington.

Both were cautious in describing the deal but said it was a possible “turning point” after more than five years of a brutal war that has killed more than 400,000 people.

“No one is building this based on trust,” Kerry said. “It is based on oversight, compliance, mutual interest. This is an opportunity, and not more than that until it becomes a reality.”

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov
US secretary of state, John Kerry, left, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/AFP/Getty Images

Lavrov described the situation in Syria as a “quagmire” of multiple warring parties, some of whom would seek to undermine the US-Russian deal. For that reason, he said, much of the deal would remain secret to prevent efforts at sabotage. But the foreign minister said Russia had secured the agreement of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.

Russia will do “what depends on us”, Lavrov promised, but noted “not everything does”.

Syria’s mainstream opposition welcomed the proposed deal on Saturday, saying the ceasefire could eventually end the suffering of civilians.

Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said the body welcomed the deal “if it is going to be enforced”.

In a statement she said the onus was on Russia because its influence “was the only way to get the regime to comply”.As part of the complex agreement, a seven-day pause in the fighting would begin on Monday evening, the beginning of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. During that time, the Syrian army would relax its stranglehold on rebel-held areas of Aleppo, allowing humanitarian aid to be delivered to the starving city, while rebels would stop fighting around government areas.

The Syrian regime would suspend airstrikes, the main cause of civilian deaths, on rebel-held areas around the country.

If the ceasefire holds, the Russian and US military would start planning joint air operations against extremist groups, including Isis and al-Nusra Front (also referred to as the Front for the Conquest of Syria). The Syrian air force would stay out of zones being targeted by the US and Russia. The US is also aiming to convince other rebel groups to separate themselves from al-Nusra Front where they have been fighting the regime together.

“Today the United States and Russia are announcing a plan which we hope will reduce violence, reduce suffering and resume movement toward a negotiated peace and a transition in Syria ... that, if followed, has the ability to provide a turning point, a moment of change,” Kerry said.

Lavrov said he hoped the ceasefire would lead to the prompt resumption of negotiations over Syria’s political future. Kerry said he had been in contact with the opposition groups in the HNC during the week and they were prepared to take part in such talks if the ceasefire held and humanitarian aid was delivered to besieged civilians.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, called the agreement a window of opportunity and said he would consult the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on the timing of new political negotiations.

Delineating the zones deemed to be controlled by al-Nusra Front was one of the thorniest issues in the negotiations, as the extremist group has fought with a range of other rebel organisations on different fronts in western Syria. Disentangling them from their allies on the ground will be one of the biggest challenges of maintaining the ceasefire deal.


Julian Borger World affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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