US, Russia spar over terms to restore Syria cease-fire

24 Sept 2016 – NEW YORK — Efforts to try to salvage a Syria cease-fire deal remained frustrated Sept. 22 after diplomats from the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) failed to reach consensus on steps to try to restore the cease-fire, which collapsed Sept. 19 after just one week.  “It’s clear we cannot continue on the same path,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said after the meeting.Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, leaving the ISSG meeting Sept. 22, said that nothing had been agreed to, and that consultations would be continuing.

US officials, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity after the meeting, said it had been very contentious, and said they were frustrated. But the United States would be willing to consider constructive ideas from Russia if it issued any, they said.

Russia expressed resistance to a US proposal to temporarily ban military flights over humanitarian aid corridors in Syria. In closed-door meetings, Russia suggested it would need a reciprocal bold gesture were it to agree to some version of a temporary grounding of military flights, sources said.

The State Department also released a fact sheet on the deal, which was reached in Geneva Sept. 9 but not released publicly, causing some suspicion among the Syrian opposition and consternation among some ISSG members who had been asked to endorse a text they had not seen.

“How do we get things back on track? How do we restore the concept of the cease-fire? How do we give people who have again and again seen this fall apart some sense of credibility? Believe me, there are a lot of people who believe it can’t happen, and there are some people who believe that major parties don’t want it done,” Kerry said.

Germany’s top diplomat threw backing to Kerry’s proposal for a temporary ban of military aircraft over Syria, ahead of the ISSG meeting.

“The situation today in Syria is on a knife edge,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Sept. 22. “If the cease-fire is to have any chance at all, there needs to be a complete ban on all military flights over Syria for a limited period — three days at least, thought seven would be better.”

He added, “This would make it possible for the United Nations to resume its humanitarian assistance missions to the people suffering under siege.”

But Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov seemed to reject the flight-grounding proposal, saying it was evidently based on the United States’ conclusion that Russia or the Syrian regime was responsible for airstrikes that destroyed a UN aid convoy Sept. 19. Such a conclusion was premature before a thorough investigation was complete, the Russian diplomat said.

“To find the way out of this situation that would suit the United States and the groups patronized by the Americans, this scheme was proposed, but it cannot work,” Ryabkov told Russia’s Tass news agency Sept. 22. “Certain steps are needed, and that’s why I’m not sure that the idea of the US secretary of state is workable.”

The Sept. 19 attack on the UN humanitarian aid convoy in western Aleppo “has dealt a very heavy blow to our efforts to bring peace to Syria, and it raises a profound doubt about whether Russia and the Assad regime can or will live up to the obligations that they agreed to,” Kerry told the UN Security Council Sept. 21.“The simple reality is we cannot resolve this crisis if the major parties who come to the table and agree to do something are unwilling to do what’s necessary to avoid escalation,” he said.

The current international efforts for a Syria cease-fire, while well-intentioned, have some of the same weaknesses that caused earlier efforts to falter, Syrian opposition leaders say.

“The first cessation of hostilities in February, which had a slightly longer life than this one, had the same weaknesses: no monitoring, no enforcement mechanisms and no consequences for violations,” Bassma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian opposition High Negotiating Committee, told Al-Monitor in an interview Sept. 20.

“As long as we don’t have clearly stated implications for violations, we stand a very slim chance of compliance by the regime,” she said. “We know the regime does not do anything unless absolutely forced to do so on humanitarian aid, airstrikes, the cessation of hostilities. That has been the pattern throughout.”

“The bigger question is if Russia is at all interested, is it able or willing [to force the regime to comply], can we consider that Russia is a trustworthy partner in this?” Kodmani asked. “The answer so far has been very discouraging. We are waiting for the other countries to draw their conclusion.”

Despite the recent US-Russia recriminations over the Sept. 19 attack on the UN aid convoy and a Sept. 17 US-led coalition strike that mistakenly killed Syrian soldiers in Deir ez-Zor, American officials have told the Syrian opposition that they assess Russia does seek coordination with the United States on Syria.

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat now with the High Negotiating Committee, said US officials recently explained to him that they have “nothing to offer Russia” except mutual coordination. “So [either] we will have a deal and things will move slowly in a more positive direction. If that conclusion is wrong, there will be more war. We will not offer anything more, or less.” Read more: