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Kerry Opens a New Diplomatic Push for a Cease-Fire in Aleppo

Secretary of State John Kerry will mount a fresh effort on Saturday to pursue a cease-fire for the besieged city of Aleppo by meeting with representatives from the regional powers most directly involved in the Syria conflict, American officials said on Wednesday.

Just last week the Obama administration suspended talks with Russia on Syria after accusing the Russian military of conducting a bombing campaign so brutal that Mr. Kerry has urged that it be the subject of a war crimes investigation.

But Mr. Kerry has doggedly pursued diplomacy on Syria even as he has privately complained that his past negotiating efforts have not been backed up by a credible threat of force to pressure President Bashar al-Assad's government to stop its attacks.

The negotiating strategy this time is to draw together diplomats from Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia and the United States in Lausanne, Switzerland, in the hope that nations that have the greatest stake in the conflict might at least agree on a truce for Aleppo, which could eventually lead to broader talks on Syria's future.

Russia and Iran have militarily backed the Assad government in the Syrian civil war, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funneled arms to the opposition, which has been fighting the Assad government. Turkey, a NATO ally that has intervened militarily in northern Syria, has increasingly been forging an independent policy in the region.

Before the American and Russian talks were suspended, a 72-hour cease-fire appeared to be under discussion. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy for the Syrian conflict, has also offered to escort jihadist fighters out of the city if the Russian and Syrian government stop bombing.

John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said on Wednesday that the main focus "is getting a cessation of hostilities in place, particularly in and around Aleppo, and to get humanitarian aid delivered, which is not happening."

"They're important in and of themselves," Mr. Kirby added. "But another big reason they're important is so they can create the kinds of conditions where political talks can resume."

Mr. Kerry plans to fly to London after the Lausanne meeting to consult about the talks with European foreign ministers.

The prospects for a major breakthrough for the Syria crisis do not appear high. Iran has steadfastly supported Mr. Assad by providing advisers and arranging for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Shiite militiamen from Iraq to fight on behalf of the Assad government. It is not clear whether Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister who negotiated the 2015 accord curbing Iran's nuclear program, plans to attend or if a lower-ranking Iranian official will participate.

As for Russia, American intelligence experts have informed the White House that the Kremlin's goal appears to be help the Assad government take Aleppo during the waning months of the Obama administration so that Russia can re-enter talks on Syria's future in an even stronger position.

Much of the Russian and Syrian bombing has been directed at hospitals, water treatment plants and other civilian infrastructure in what American officials assert is part of a heavy-handed military campaign to force the surrender of eastern Aleppo and other rebel-held areas. The Kremlin has repeatedly insisted that it supports diplomacy and is only targeting the Islamic State and the Levant Conquest Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda formerly known as the Nusra Front.

On Wednesday, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs sought to gain a public relations advantage by announcing the Lausanne meeting before the State Department and portraying itself as a co-host of the session. American officials bridled at that characterization and said it was Mr. Kerry who had called for the meeting.

Mr. Kerry's leverage in the upcoming Lausanne talks appears limited. The Obama administration has said that it is reviewing options in case diplomacy fails, including military action. But officials also say that President Obama remains deeply reluctant to intervene militarily in Syria, and there has been no serious discussion with American allies of imposing additional economic sanctions on Russia because of its military support for the Assad government.

Instead, Mr. Kerry and his European counterpart have sought to build international pressure on Russia to curtail its bombing by accusing the Kremlin and its Syrian ally of deliberating targeting civilian areas.

The Lausanne meeting is freighted with some unintended symbolism. Before flying to Switzerland, Mr. Kerry will attend an environmental meeting in Rwanda, which was the scene of the notorious genocide in 1994 that led to the death of an 800,000 people in 100 days. President Bill Clinton later said that he had not done enough to address the violence.

The Syria war, now in its sixth year, has left an estimated 500,000 people dead and half of the country's population displaced.

[Source: By Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times, Washington, 12Oct16]

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