Kerry issues warning over holding Syria together if cease-fire not implemented
BEIRUT/WASHINGTON – Reuters
AP photoThe United States warned it would be hard to hold the country together if the fighting did not stop after a cease-fire deal was reached to take effect as of Feb. 27.
With hostilities reported on several fronts, rebels backed by Saudi Arabia expressed doubts about the proposal, which excludes attacks by the Syrian army and its Russian backers on the jihadist groups the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Saudi-backed rebels said Russia had stepped up air strikes since the plan was announced on Feb. 22.
For its part, the Syrian government in Damascus has made clear that continued foreign help for the rebels could wreck the deal.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would soon know if the plan would take hold.
“The proof will be in the actions that come in the next days,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Feb. 23.
If a political transition to a government to replace the current administration does not unfold in Syria, there are options, Kerry said, in a reference to undefined contingency plans believed to include military action.
The next month or two would show if that transition process was serious and Assad would have to make “some real decisions about the formation of a transitional governance process that’s real,” Kerry said.
Faced with skepticism about the cessation of hostilities plan, Kerry said that things in Syria could get uglier.
“It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer,” he said.
Kerry insisted Washington is working on ways to react if diplomacy does not work. “There is a significant discussion taking place now about Plan B if we don’t succeed at the table,” Kerry said.
US, French, German, British leaders hope for deal to take effect
France said the leaders of the United States, France, Britain and Germany hoped the cessation deal could take effect soon.
The plan is the result of intense diplomacy to end the five-year-long war that has killed at least 250,000 and forced millions to flee their homes helping to cause a refugee crisis in Europe.
But the Saudi-backed opposition, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said the exclusion of ISIL and the Nusra Front would give the government a pretext to keep attacking them because its fighters are widely spread in opposition-held areas. Salem al-Muslet, a spokesman for the HNC, said that Russia had stepped up air strikes since a U.S.-Russian ceasefire plan was announced and that it feared worse was to come in the days before the agreement is due to take effect.
Opposition not yet sure to commit to deal
HNC chief negotiation Mohammad Alloush said that the opposition had yet to decide whether it would commit to the cease-fire deal.
Alloush said the HNCwould give the final answer.
“We have until Friday [Feb. 26],” Alloush told Orient News on Feb. 24, who heads the political office of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.
One day after announcing that they would abide by the deal with reservations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad assured Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin of his government’s readiness to respect a ceasefire deal brokered by Moscow and Washington, the Kremlin said on Feb. 24.
The Kremlin said the two leaders discussed the deal in a phone call and that Assad noted that the proposals laid out in the agreement were an “important step in the direction of a political settlement.”
“In particular, [Assad] confirmed the readiness of the Syrian government to facilitate the establishment of a ceasefire,” it said in a statement.
Coordination center set up in Syria to oversee cease-fire implementation, Russia says
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Feb. 23 that a coordination center to help enforce a cease-fire was set up and it was located at Syria’s Hemeimeem air base hosting Russian warplanes, the Associated Press reported.
Konashenkov said in a statement that the center had been created in line with cease-fire deal.
Konashenkov said the coordination center will help organize cease-fire negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition. He said Russia has given out its hotline numbers for enforcing the truce to the U.S.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Feb. 24 that the U.N.-brokered Syria peace talks which were scheduled to resume on Feb. 25 had been delayed.
Syria peace talks have been “delayed for technical and logistics reasons,” a U.N. official told an Anadolu Agency correspondent. The official did not give further information about when the talks would resume.
U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura had announced a “temporary pause” of the peace talks on Feb. 2 due to intensified fighting in Syria and had set the date of Feb. 25 for their resumption in Geneva.
Meanwhile, Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said Feb. 24 that he expects peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition to resume in days.
With political will, Gatilov said, “we can achieve great results.”
ISIL takes village on road to Aleppo: Monitor
On Feb. 23, ISIL fighters were reported to have tightened their grip on a supply route to Aleppo that had been used by the Syrian government in its campaign to seize the city.
Heavy Russian air strikes in support of the army were also said to be targeting one of the last roads into opposition-held parts of Aleppo.
Damascus, backed by ground forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is making significant advances near Aleppo, which is split between rebel- and government-control.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports the war using a network of sources on the ground, said ISIL fighters had seized the village of Khanaser on the road, which remained closed for a second day. A Syrian military source told Reuters that army operations continued to repel the attack.