(CNSNews.com) – For the second time in less than a fortnight, Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday announced a “cessation of hostilities” to take effect within days in Syria.
He also shrugged off criticism about the failure of diplomatic efforts to end a convoluted conflict that has drawn in global and regional powers and triggered the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, saying critics have offered no workable alternative.
“A lot of cynics have criticized our diplomatic efforts,” he told reporters in Amman, Jordan.
“But I want to point out very clearly they have not offered a realistic alternative that actually decreases the bloodshed and ends the conflict,” Kerry continued. “Nobody would like to see our diplomatic efforts move more quickly than I would. But the truth is we are, in fact, making progress, even as I stand here today.”
He said there has been some movement – since a meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Munich, Germany earlier this month – in getting aid to several towns under siege, and to besieged suburbs of Damascus
“The modalities for a cessation of hostilities are now being completed.”
When he first announced a “cessation” – rather than a more ambitious ceasefire – standing alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Munich on Friday, Feb. 12, Kerry said it would take effect “in a target of one week’s time,” that is, by Friday, Feb. 19.
On Sunday he was more cautious about setting dates, but said that after further talks – including phone conversations with Lavrov – “we have reached a provisional agreement in principle on the terms of a cessation of hostilities that could begin in the coming days.”
Kerry also said President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin would likely talk “in the next days or so, in order to try to complete this task.”
The U.S. and Russia are ostensibly in agreement about the need to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists who have exploited the rebellion against the Assad regime to further its bloody campaign for a “caliphate” across parts of both Syria and Iraq.
But U.S.-Russia agreement on Syria largely ends there. Under the cover of an air campaign that is supposedly targeting ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, Russia is bombing other opposition groups opposed to its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – including groups supported by the U.S. to fight against ISIS.
Around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, Russian airstrikes and Shi’ite militia from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq have been helping Assad’s forces make advances in recent weeks, prompting some analysts to talk about a possible “turning point” in the war, in the regime’s favor.
Pointing to the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters – and of other rebel groups that have cooperated with Jabhat al-Nusra – Russia is pressing home the offensive around Aleppo despite the “cessation” efforts.
(All parties in the ISSG, including the U.S. and Russia, agree that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra should be exempt from any ceasefire agreement.)
Despite the supposed agreements reached in Munich, Baghdad-based U.S. military spokesman Col. U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren said last week Russian and regime air attacks had intensified rather than lessened.
Meanwhile civilian fatality numbers continue to climb, with Russia accused of bombing hospitals and schools last week in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Russia says there’s no proof it was responsible, while the Assad regime blames the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.
Warren said the coalition has not carried out a single airstrike in Aleppo this year, and that both Russians and Syrian regime aircraft had conducted strikes in the areas where the hospitals were hit at the time.
A U.N. Security Council resolution (2254) passed in December – unanimously, i.e., with Russia’s support – demanded an immediate halt on attacks on civilians in Syria.
One independent monitoring group reported that Russia accounted for more civilian deaths in January than either the regime or ISIS.