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Talks on Syria Seek to Extend Fragile Truce to Aleppo

Negotiations are underway to extend a fragile cease-fire agreement in Syria to the embattled northern city of Aleppo, which a surge of violence has nearly torn apart in recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday.

"In the last weeks, the cessation of hostilities has been put to the test, and it has frayed in certain areas, and it has fallen completely in a few areas," Mr. Kerry said in Geneva after meeting with the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. Mr. Kerry said he was particularly disturbed about air raids on a hospital and three health clinics in Aleppo, for which he blamed President Bashar al-Assad's government.

"The regime has clearly indicated the willingness, over a period of time now, to attack first responders, to attack health care workers and rescue workers," Mr. Kerry said. "And the attack on this hospital is unconscionable, under any standard anywhere. It has to stop." He added that "both sides — the opposition and the regime — have contributed to this chaos."

Mr. Kerry said that he planned to talk to his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, on Monday evening, and that Mr. de Mistura would travel to Moscow on Tuesday, all part of an effort to restore a fragile cease-fire that was brokered in February, with American and Russian support, and is now at risk of collapse.

Mr. Kerry urged Russia to pressure Mr. Assad to stop the attacks. "This is the moment to try to make certain that what everybody has signed up to is, in fact, being delivered, being lived up to, without hypocrisy and without variation."

Mr. Kerry said there could be no "legitimate political talks" until both parties carried out the agreement — a full cessation of hostilities throughout the country and the nationwide delivery of humanitarian aid. "And yet one party is blatantly violating that agreement," he said, referring to the Syrian government.

Speaking at a news conference with Mr. de Mistura, Mr. Kerry said that the deal was fraying in some areas and had collapsed in others and that legitimate talks on a cease-fire were impossible unless all of the involved parties were committed to it.

Mr. Kerry said that Russia and the United States would add personnel in Geneva so that the cease-fire agreement could be monitored 24/7 — a declaration that left the unsettling impression that until now, the agreement, promoted as being of ultimate importance, had not been monitored around the clock by its sponsors.

Mr. de Mistura added a note of reality, saying he appreciated that while Russia and the United States were developing an improved cease-fire monitoring system, "we need the political will; otherwise we would have only a mechanism."

"Well said," Mr. Kerry said.

Asked repeatedly whether he trusted the Russian government on the efforts to restore a truce in Aleppo, Mr. Kerry declined to answer.

In noting that the partial truce had fallen apart in some parts of Syria, Mr. Kerry acknowledged what has been clear for more than a week on the ground: The relative respite from violence brought by the two-month reduction in hostilities has come to a resounding end in many areas, especially Aleppo, where more than 200 people have died in the past week, most of them civilians.

About two-thirds of those deaths have been on the rebel-held side of town, which is being pummeled anew by airstrikes and by bombs dropped from helicopters, including on a hospital.

But both sides have demonstrated a disregard for civilian life, with rebels firing mortar shells and missiles last week toward most of the government-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, in one of their worst barrages in recent months.

Yet as Mr. Kerry carries out shuttle diplomacy to try to revive the partial truce, it has been renewed in several areas, but not in Aleppo, where it is needed most.

The Syrian Army said in a statement on Monday that a temporary truce in the suburbs of Damascus and in the coastal province of Latakia would be extended for an additional 48 hours.

The Tass news agency in Russia quoted Lt. Gen. Sergei Kurylenko, head of the Russian coordination center in Syria, as saying only that talks about a cease-fire for Aleppo were continuing.

The sticking point is apparently an unwillingness by Russia to tell the Syrian government to stop its aerial bombardments on insurgent-held areas there.

Mr. Kerry, as well as residents and opposition figures, say the government's warplanes, in a campaign aided by Russia, are mainly hitting areas not controlled by the Nusra Front, which has a small presence in Aleppo.

Instead, they are believed to be striking areas controlled by other insurgent groups, including some backed by the United States and its allies.

The United States is considering whether to draw up a map of safe zones where civilians and members of moderate opposition groups could seek shelter from attacks by Mr. Assad's military, The Associated Press reported.

It was not immediately clear whether Russia would accept such a plan, or could persuade the Assad government to respect the zones. Such an agreement is also unlikely to be helpful if the sides cannot agree on what constitutes the violations the monitors are supposed to be watching for.

Even if so-called hard lines were drawn on a map, and civilians and insurgents not affiliated with the Nusra Front were encouraged to go there, the plan would face major practical problems, given the difficulty of moving safely within the city.

Rebel groups may not agree to give up areas that Russia believes are held by the Nusra Front, arguing that, in fact, they are held by local opposition fighters and seeing the plan as a ploy to allow the government to take them back.

[Source: By Anne Barnard and Sewell Chan, The New York Times, Beirut, 02May16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 04May16 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.