Felicia Schwartz is a reporter in the Washington, D.C. bureau, where she writes about national security. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College. Email her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter, @felschwartz.
Officials see hope of reducing violence and creating atmosphere for political transition
GENEVA—Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said they have agreed on the majority of technical steps necessary to implement a deal to reach a nationwide cease-fire in Syria that would include closer military cooperation between the two countries.
Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov were short on specifics when they spoke to reporters Friday evening after more than nine hours of on-and-off talks.
"We achieved clarity on the path forward,” Mr. Kerry said. He added that the sides have completed the vast majority of technical discussions, though Mr. Lavrov said Russia was still concerned about the commingling of terrorist groups with rebel fighters.
Mr. Kerry said technical teams from both sides would pursue the details of an agreement in Geneva in the coming days.
It was unclear after Friday’s meeting if the deal Mr. Kerry proposed in Moscow in July, which would include Russia grounding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force in exchange for closer coordination against the Syria Conquest Front, formerly the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, will ever come to fruition.
The tentative deal comes as officials are trying to secure a 48-hour pause in fighting in Aleppo and as residents of a besieged suburb in Damascus were evacuating the city after surrendering to the regime. Turkey also entered the battlefield in Syria this week, sending tanks across the border to the town of Jarablus to prevent Kurdish forces, who are fighting Islamic State, to occupy the town and nearby area.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Friday emphasized the nation’s commitment to bringing stability to Syria and indicated its military mission could be long-lasting.
The top diplomats in Geneva said they spoke on Friday about specific steps to separate terrorist fighters from opposition groups, which has long been a demand from Russia. They didn’t say what those steps were, however.
In the weeks since the two sides reached a preliminary agreement in Moscow, the circumstances on the ground in Syria have become decidedly more complicated and have the potential to derail Mr. Kerry’s efforts. Violence has increased, particularly in Aleppo and Daraya, where civilians and rebels forces were forced to surrender this week.
"Without delineating adequate opposition from terrorists I don’t think there will be away to ensure an actionable, durable full-fledged cessation of hostilities,” Mr. Lavrov said Friday
In a nod to the military discussions between the two countries that would underlie the U.S.-Russian effort to restore calm in Syria, Mr. Lavrov said the sides agreed that "together militaries should find concrete solutions.” U.S. officials have said that Russia would agree to ground Mr. Assad’s air force in any agreement, but Mr. Lavrov said Friday that the conversations were about making sure that the forces flying were targeting terrorists.
Mr. Kerry said it was critical for the U.S. to see the Syrian regime abide by a cease-fire reached in February that has all but collapsed and allow for humanitarian access before the U.S. moves forward with any enhanced cooperation with Russia.
The Pentagon is concerned about more closely cooperating with Russia, which backs the Assad regime. However, Mr. Kerry and other senior officials see a deal for grounding Mr. Assad’s air force in exchange for closer military cooperation as the best chance to reduce violence in Syria and try to move to a political track.
Mr. Kerry, accompanied by senior National Security Council and Pentagon officials, and Mr. Lavrov held talks at a lakeside hotel Friday. The United Nations’ special Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura,joined the talks for about an hour earlier in the day.
Russia backed a 48-hour cease-fire in Aleppo ahead of Friday’s talks but U.N. officials said they were still waiting for parties on the ground for the effort to go ahead. Jan Egeland, adviser to U.N. Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura, said in Geneva Thursday that the plan would include sending a 20-truck convoy to Aleppo through Turkey via the Castello Road, which the United Nations has determined is the safest and most effective road to reach eastern Aleppo.
The U.N. would also distribute aid in Western Aleppo that is pre-positioned in Damascus and repair electricity lines in disputed Southern Aleppo.
Mr. Kerry’s efforts are opposed by some in the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon, who doubt that Moscow will abide by the terms of the agreement. Proponents at the White House and the State Department say the deal will allow the U.S. to step up its attacks on the Syria Conquest Front and help protect U.S. allies on the ground in Syria who have faced air attacks from Syrian and Russian forces.
The U.S. military scrambled jets last week to protect U.S. Special Operations forces in response to a Syrian bombing run near where they were operating. The battlefield in Syria is becoming ever more complex, as Turkey recently began an effort near Jarablus to drive Islamic State from the border it shares with Syria and deter advances by Kurdish forces.
Syria has been mired by five years of civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions have been displaced, creating the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Since 2011, the U.S. has pursued a variety of efforts with international partners to try to begin peace talks, all which have floundered.
The most recent push to begin talks between the regime and the opposition earlier this year fell apart as a fragile cease-fire broke down and the sides remained at loggerheads about the fate of Mr. Assad.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com