The Guardian, Feb 21, 2016
‘Provisional’ Syria ceasefire plan called into question as bombs kill 120
A "provisional agreement” on a ceasefire in Syria has been reached between the US and Russia, the US secretary of state John Kerry said on Sunday, but serious doubts remain on whether it will come into force as the country reeled from a series of deadly car bombs in Syria’s two biggest cities that left more than 120 dead.
In Homs, twin car bombs killed at least 57 people and wounded 100 on Sunday, and explosions hit parts of the capital, Damascus, killing a further 62 and wounding 180, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The attacks on both cities were claimed by Islamic State.
Kerry said he had reached an agreement following phone talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, amid signs that Russia is putting some pressure on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to comply. There are serious doubts over strength of the deal, which would need the agreement of Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, who are expected to speak by phone later this week.
A previous UN-brokered ceasefire, agreed between the interested parties in Munich a fortnight ago, failed to come into force on Friday as expected, with Russia continuing its bombing campaign and the Syrian army moving to encircle Syria’s second city of Homs.
"We have reached a provisional agreement in principle on the terms of a cessation of hostilities that could begin in the coming days,” Kerry told a news conference in Amman with Jordanian foreign minister Nasser Judeh on Sunday. Kerry declined to go into the details of the agreement, saying it "is not yet done”.
"The modalities for a cessation of hostilities are now being completed. In fact, we are closer to a ceasefire today than we have been,” said Kerry, who was also to meet Jordan’s King Abdullah. Despite the recent progress made by the Syrian army in northernSyria, Kerry said it was futile to think there was a military solution to the conflict.
Kerry indicated there were still issues to be resolved before the ceasefire could come into force and he did not expect any immediate change on the ground.
However, he reiterated the longtime US position that any political solution to the conflict would not work if Assad remains at the helm of the nation. "Make no mistake. The answer to the Syrian civil war will not be found in any military alliance with Assad,” Kerry said. "Let me make that clear.”
The Russian foreign ministry seemed to stop short of Kerry’s announcement. The ministry said Lavrov and Kerry spoke on the phone Sunday for a second day in a row and discussed "the modality and conditions” for a ceasefire in Syria that would exclude groups that the UN Security Council considers terrorist organisations.
An aerial campaign by Moscow launched last autumn has driven the most significant gains by the Assad regime since the start of the war, having primarily targeted mainstream rebels bent on overthrowing him.
Fighting has intensified in Syria during recent weeks and the earlier deadline to cease military activities was not observed. The United States, Russia and other world powers agreed 12 February on a deal calling for the ceasing of hostilities within a week, the delivery of urgently needed aid to besieged areas of Syria and a return to peace talks in Geneva.
UN envoy Staffan De Mistura halted the latest Syria talks on 3 February, because of major differences between the two sides, exacerbated by increased aerial bombings and a wide military offensive by Syrian troops and their allies under the cover of Russian airstrikes. The humanitarian situation has worsened, with an estimated 13.5 million Syrians in need of aid, including six million children.
The need for a ceasefire has also become even more urgent due to signs that Turkey is threatening to invade northern Syria in a bid to contain the Syrian Kurds, and protect opposition forces. The US has been working with the Syrian Kurds, but Turkey, a key American ally, claims they have links with terrorist organisations inside Turkey. Ankara has been shelling Syrian Kurd positions from inside Turkey despite appeals from America to show restraint.
In an interview with El Pais on Saturday, Assad said he was ready for a ceasefire on the condition "terrorists” did not use a lull in fighting to their advantage and that countries backing insurgents stopped supporting them.
The Syrian opposition had earlier said it had agreed to the "possibility” of a temporary truce, provided there were guarantees Damascus’s allies, including Russia, would cease fire, sieges were lifted and aid deliveries were allowed countrywide.
Russia has said it would exclude from the ceasefire operations against organisations "recognised as terrorist by the UN Security Council”. This would in effect mean air operations against Isis and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front could continue, but there is a dispute about what other groups could be categorised as terrorist. The agreement of Iran would also be required.
Kerry did not suggest his ceasefire would lead to a quick change on the ground. He said: "I do not believe that in the next few days, during which time we try to bring this into effect, there is somehow going to be a tipping point with respect to what is happening on the ground … The opposition has made clear their determination to fight back,” he said.
Meanwhile, at least 57 people were killed and 100 people wounded in a pro-government district of Homs, one of the deadliest attacks in the city in five years of civil war, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The districts hit – in the Zahra neighbourhood – are predominantly Alawite, the minority Muslim sect to which Assad belongs.
Four explosions hit the southern Damascus district of Sayeda Zeinab, where a revered Shia shrine is located, leaving 62 dead and 180 injured, according to the Observatory.
The attacks on Homs and Damascus targeted areas dominated by Muslim minorities reviled by the Sunni radicals of Isis.
A ceasefire and the resumption of aid deliveries has become a de facto precondition for substantive peace talks to start on a future government for Syria.