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Facing Allies' Doubt, John Kerry Voices Confidence in Syria Cease-Fire

Secretary of State John Kerry, facing both anger and skepticism from European allies about the willingness of the United States to intervene more deeply in the Syrian civil war, promised on Saturday to help close off the routes migrants were taking to Europe and warned Russia that its military effort to prop up President Bashar al-Assad of Syria would ultimately fail.

Mr. Kerry's comments at the annual Munich Security Conference here came a day after he announced an agreement to send humanitarian relief to besieged cities in Syria and a "cessation of hostilities" within a week.

Whether the accord will halt Russian bombing in Syria is unclear, stirring deep doubt among Western allies and some nations in the Mideast. Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia added to the questions with a belligerent speech in which he recalled a famously sour address about the West's treatment of Russia delivered by President Vladimir V. Putin to the security conference nine years ago.

The world, Mr. Medvedev said, has "slipped into the era of a new Cold War." He and other Russian speakers at the conference insisted that NATO was to blame, saying that the Western alliance was now speaking and acting as if Russia was an aggressor.

Mr. Kerry, who is supposed to monitor compliance of the accord on Syria with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told leaders at the conference that delivery of humanitarian aid could start immediately. "The trucks are loaded and ready to go," he said. The only reason for any delay in the cease-fire was to work out details and communicate them to the many different forces, so the cease-fire does not begin with a breach.

But many officials involved in the agreement expressed skepticism that it would work — and that if it did, that it would last. Meanwhile, Mr. Kerry found himself defending the United States against the charge that it has let Russia dominate Syria's skies and reinsert itself as the central outside force in the Syrian war.

On Saturday, while meeting President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, Mr. Kerry was overheard offering reassurances that his fragile plan would succeed. "We will make it work," he said. He then said he had heard that Mr. Lavrov had put the chances of success at 49 percent at an open meeting of the conference.

"I like his optimism," Mr. Kerry said, with a note of sarcasm.

Mr. Medvedev denied that his country had bombed civilians in its many sorties over Syria in recent weeks, directly contradicting the findings of many human rights groups.

Alexander V. Grushko, Russia's envoy to NATO, later suggested that Russia was not violating its commitment to hit only terrorist groups designated by the United Nations. Michael Fallon, the British defense minister, shot back that Mr. Grushko's lengthy intervention "might have been more worthwhile" if "he had told us this bombing of innocent civilians is going to stop."

The exchanges added to a gloomy mood at the conference, with leaders deeply skeptical about Europe's unity, its ability to cope with refugees, to stop the war in Syria or even defend its own borders.

As the highest ranking official from the United States, Mr. Kerry had the immediate task of reassuring the Europeans that the United States understood the huge stresses created by the arrival of a million refugees in Germany, many of whom passed through the main Munich train station less than a mile from where Mr. Kerry spoke.

"We in the United States aren't sitting across the pond thinking somehow we're immune," he said, adding that America "understands the near existential nature of this threat to the politics and fabric of life in Europe."

Mr. Kerry noted that the Obama administration had decided to join a NATO mission to help intercept migrants at sea, mostly as they headed across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. That is an effort to shut off the flow of migrants pouring into Germany, and the additional political upheaval that could cause.

Privately, Mr. Kerry has told his European colleagues that he is worried that the migrant crisis could pull apart the European Union. "He clearly is fearful that the great experiment of Europe could break on his watch," one senior official said Saturday.

But most of the focus was on Russia, with a series of Western leaders suggesting that what is happening in Syria now is part of a continuum of Russian aggression, from Georgia in 2008 to Ukraine in 2014.

Mr. Fallon was among the sharpest critics of Russia's behavior, accusing it of "deliberately targeting civilians."

"If that doesn't stop, Russia should and will pay a price," he said, warning that Moscow "risked becoming a pariah in the Middle East."

Other leaders, including Mr. Kerry and the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, were not as strident. But Mr. Medvedev's speech, and a later appearance by Mr. Lavrov did nothing to dispel questions about Russia's commitment to ceasing hostilities in Syria.

Some American officials fear Russia will allow some humanitarian aid — mostly to relieve criticism of the Russian government — but will continue airstrikes against Aleppo, Syria, which is partially encircled. "They may simply declare that Aleppo is filled with Al Nusra terrorists," said one senior administration official, referring to the Nusra Front, which is linked to Al Qaeda and which the United States and Russia both consider a terrorist group, and keep "bombing just as they did last week." The official declined to speak on the record about talks within the United States government.

Behind the scenes there was obvious tension between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov. The Russian foreign minister offered, once again, joint military operations to drop relief supplies and to conduct operations — a step the Pentagon is deeply concerned about taking. "Coordination" is impossible, American officials have argued, at a time of sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine, efforts by Russia to intimidate the Baltic States and the bombing of Syrian rebel groups that are receiving overt and covert support from the United States.

Mr. Kerry, however, acknowledged that it was impossible to work without Russia. In his speech, Mr. Kerry said that with Mr. Lavrov, "We will work through where this targeting should take place, where it shouldn't, how we work together in order to be effective so we don't drive people away from the table. Because obviously, if people who are ready to be part of the political process are being bombed, we're not going to have much of a conversation."

Meanwhile, the United Nations mediator, Staffan de Mistura, said talks among the Syrian warring parties could resume once the commitments made by the world powers two days ago were verified. Talks began this month in Geneva, only to be abruptly suspended a few days later after the Syrian government and its allies refused the opposition's demand to lift military sieges.

The Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, was perhaps the most direct critic of the American-Russian agreement. The problem, he said, is that the United States needs to go after Mr. Assad first. Once he relinquished power, he argues, it will be easier to focus on the Islamic State.

"That is our objective, and we will achieve it," he said. Mr. Kerry also talked about the need for Mr. Assad to leave office, but he did not say when.

[Source: By David E. Sanger and Alison Smale, The New York Times, Munich, 13Feb16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 15Feb16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.