Syrian peace talks are taking place amid a new urgency. The four-year-old civil war could be on the verge of yet another humanitarian disaster.
Late Friday night Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart said they had agreed to work toward a “cessation of hostilities” among the warring factions in Syria to begin in one week. The agreement, which was backed by other major powers, also aims to accelerate humanitarian aid to besieged cities in Syria and bring the Syrian regime and the opposition back to the negotiation table, NPR’s Michele Kelemen reports.
The Syrian regime – with Russian military backing – has been advancing toward rebel-held areas in the large city of Aleppo. Tens of thousands of civilians have already fled for their lives but hundreds of thousands more remain in the city.
Here’s a breakdown on the talks, which are in Germany and could last through Saturday.
Who is there and what are they discussing?
This meeting by the so-called International Syria Support Group in Munich is an effort to get the broad U.N. talks going again. The ISSG is a group of about 20 countries, including the U.S., Russia, Iran, and European and Middle Eastern nations, who have an interest in the Syrian conflict.
And as the Associated Press reports, “A truce is seen as critical to resuscitating peace talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition. They stalled last month before really starting.”
The full U.N. peace talks, which would include the Syrian government and opposition, are scheduled to resume Feb. 25. NPR’s Alison Meuse has reported that the fighting in Aleppo contributed to the suspension of a previous round of talks earlier this month.
The talks would not include ISIS or an al-Qaida-affiliated group operating in Syria, but aim to get the government communicating with rebel groups.
The focus today was on Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. Their two countries have exchanged blame for the increased violence in Syria. When the talks stalled last month, the U.N. envoy running them said that getting the U.S. and Russia to work together is key before progress can be made.
Why do the U.S. and Russia differ so starkly?
The U.S. and Russia see fundamentally different endgames for the Syrian conflict.
“From the start, I’d say the Russians have been pretty clear that they don’t see anyone who could replace (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. doesn’t see the war ending as long as Assad’s in power,” reports NPR’s Michele Kelemen who is traveling with Kerry in Munich.
Both the U.S. and Russia have taken significant roles in negotiations until now, she says:
“When the Syrian government crossed the U.S. red line and used chemical weapons in 2013, the U.S. worked with Russia to rid Syria of its declared stockpiles. The West saw that as a sign that Russia would use its leverage when necessary, and the Russians saw that as a sign that the only way you resolve things in Syria is to work with the Assad regime.”
And when Russia entered the conflict with airstrikes, it gave them “the kind of leverage that the U.S. doesn’t have here, and a clear sense of what they want to make sure Assad’s regime survives,” Michele says.
What do the U.S. and Russia want now?
“What [Kerry] has been trying to do is get all the countries that have a stake in Syria to push their proxies toward a political settlement so that everyone can focus on ISIS,” reports Michele Kelemen.
She says the Russians “brush off” accusations that their offensive near Aleppo has stalled talks: “They say they’re there fighting terrorists.”
And Michele reports that “officials keep reminding the Russians that they signed on to a U.N. Security resolution that calls for peace talks and that calls for humanitarian access.”
But Michele noted that while the U.S. was focused on getting aid to civilians in cities under siege the the Syrian government, Russia talked about the people in cities held by rebel groups, a far smaller number.
Syrian opposition negotiator Salem al-Muslet tells NPR, “Syrians can’t wait another week, as Russia’s warplanes pound Aleppo, displacing more people and cutting off aid supply routes.”
What happens if this “cessation of hostilities” fails?
The war in Syria has already killed a quarter of a million people, and that stands to rise if this falls through.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation grows steadily worse. The United Nations said today that some 300,000 people are at risk of being placed under siege in Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest city before the war began.
A failure to get the Syrian regime in the same room as the opposition would mean more death and misery for thousands of people in Syria – and drive more to seek safety in neighboring countries and Europe.