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Munich: The US, Russia and other powers have reached agreement on a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria's civil war that allows for immediate humanitarian access to besieged areas, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced here early Friday morning.
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Kerry: world powers to expand Syria aid
Major powers have agreed to accelerate and expand delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria "beginning immediately" according to US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The end of hostilities, which Mr Kerry avoided calling a ceasefire, is scheduled to go into effect "in one week's time", Mr Kerry said. Humanitarian access to towns and cities in Syria where food and medical supplies have been blocked, sometimes for months, is to begin immediately.
"It was unanimous", Mr Kerry said. "Everybody today agreed on the urgency of humanitarian access. What we have here are words on paper. What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground."
Agreement came after day-long consultations that lasted until early Friday in Munich. Hours earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov huddled with his counterpart from Iran, Russia's ally in backing the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, and John Kerry sat down with allies backing the Syrian opposition, before all parties gathered for a joint meeting at which the deal was struck..
Mr Lavrov called cessation of hostilities the "first step" toward a full ceasefire.
The effort has been considered a last chance to stop the carnage in Syria that has left hundreds of thousands dead and sent millions fleeing from the country. What was already a desperate situation in Syria has greatly worsened over the past few weeks, as massive Russian bombardment in and around the city of Aleppo has scattered opposition fighters and driven tens of thousands of civilians toward the barricaded Turkish border.
Participants said they had noted a new resolve in US willingness to stand up to the Russians, who agreed in December to a UN resolution calling for a cease-fire in conjunction with peace negotiations.
The administration has been under pressure from its allies to stop the flow into Europe of what are now nearly 1 million refugees. Partners in the Middle East have also openly despaired of what they see as declining US leadership in the region.
Beyond its recent appearance of allowing Russia to act with impunity, the administration has long resisted calls from regional partners to increase its relatively low level of military aid and training to opposition forces, even as President Obama insisted that Assad would have to step down. Failure of the Munich effort would have presented the administration with a decision on whether to reverse course and expand its assistance to the opposition.
Some diplomats here noted that the Russians may been more amenable now to an early cease-fire, since the airstrikes and Iran-aided ground operations have achieved their goal of regaining control for Assad over much of the country's western population centres. This month's bombing has driven opposition forces out of areas of Aleppo and the surrounding province they had occupied almost since the civil war began in earnest four years ago.
"Everybody's calculations have shifted" following events of the past few weeks, one diplomat said. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the still-tentative plan and closed-door negotiations.
Mr Kerry met with Mr Lavrov earlier in the day for nearly 90 minutes. "We're going to have a serious conversation about all aspects about what's happening in Syria," he said before reporters were ushered out of the room. "Obviously, at some point in time," he said, "we want to make progress on the issues of humanitarian access and cease-fire".
The plan, drafted by United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura, in consultation with Mr Kerry and the Syrian opposition, assumes that Assad's government, which is not represented here, would be pressed by Russia to agree. Parties to the talks said that the first relief drops could occur as early as this weekend.
Opposition leaders had said they were optimistic after talks with Mr Kerry and others. "We'll wait two days and see if all the promises they made are kept," Salem al-Meslet, spokesman for a negotiating team appointed by the Syrian opposition to open UN-sponsored talks with the government, said before the agreement was announced. "Hopefully, we'll see something by Monday."
Mr Meslet said the opposition would return to talks with the government if the plan is implemented. But, he said, "we have to see something — food go to children who are starving to death. Then we'll go sit at the same table" with the government.
"I can't stop Putin," he said of Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Can you say no to Putin?" he said, referring to the US and its allies.
The initial session of the negotiations was suspended last week after the opposition protested the lack of humanitarian access and that escalated Russian airstrikes near Aleppo.
Under the draft plan as it stood early Thursday, Russia would take responsibility for humanitarian airdrops, avoiding potential problems of US or allied military aircraft flying over combat zones in sovereign Syrian territory. Although the US and its allies have conducted thousands of airstrikes over Syria in the past 18 months, all have targeted the Islamic State in areas beyond the government's control, and with its tacit acceptance.
Under the agreement as initially drafted, two committees would be formed of the 17 countries that are part of the so-called International Syrian Support Group, or ISSG, formed in November at Mr Kerry's urging. The group, including Russia and Iran in addition to US allies in Europe and the region surrounding Syria, developed a formula for peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, with a UN resolution mandating its terms for a cease-fire, formation of a transition government and eventual negotiations.
The Munich meeting, the fourth the group has held, was initially intended to bless and monitor talks that were supposed to start early this month. Instead, it has turned into an emergency session to put the process back on track.
One of the new committees would monitor humanitarian access and deliveries, troubleshooting and adjudicating claims of interference. The second committee would monitor the cease-fire. Details of what some diplomats called a less-formal "cessation of hostilities" have still not been firmed up.
The goal is to ensure that charges of violations would be directed to the committee, rather than responded to in kind. Any fighting group that signed on to and complied with a cease-fire would be exempt from airstrikes. It presumes that the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, considered by all parties to be terrorist groups, would not participate. Opposition groups embedded with al-Nusra in the anti-Assad fight would have to decide whether to sever those links and separate themselves geographically from the militants.
Although isolated, small-scale fighting is likely to continue, the deal would ideally stop the use of heavy weapons, including tanks and anti-tank missiles. The US and its partners would continue the current level of opposition training and equipping, so as not to leave the rebels at a disadvantage if the cease-fire collapses. Russia would presumably continue its support for the Syrian government.
Despite the diplomatic talks here, both real and verbal combat continued Thursday. Russia's Defence Ministry was defiant about its intervention in Syria, saying it would not yield to Western entreaties to stop an effort that has given Assad forces powerful momentum on the battlefield.
Western efforts at "political transitions" led to bloodshed and refugees, Major General Igor Konashenkov, a Defence Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Moscow. He gave no indication that Russia plans to stop its combat air missions any time soon.