Top US, Russian diplomats meet as Syria truce crumbles

Matthew Lee
Associated Press

New York — The top American and Russian diplomats joined together Tuesday in a last-ditch bid to save Syria’s week-old truce, on a day the pair once envisioned as the start of a new military partnership against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida. Instead, they went into their talks unsure what cooperation could be maintained to stop the Arab country’s five-year civil war.

While Arab, European and other officials waited, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in a New York hotel hoping to quickly iron out some of the many differences between Washington and Moscow. They walked up a grand staircase, deep in conversation, on the way to a larger gathering of some 20 nations after a two-day period that included a mistaken U.S.-coalition air raid on Syrian soldiers and a deadly attack on an aid convoy that the U.S. blamed on Russia and Syria.

On Monday, Syria’s Russian-backed government declared the cease-fire dead. But Kerry and Lavrov are hoping it may yet be salvageable. The International Syria Support Group they have convened includes countries with widely divergent interests, such as Iran, another supporter of Syria’s government, and Saudi Arabia, a provider of arms and cash to rebels.

Kerry and Lavrov have spent months trying to forge a diplomatic path out of a conflict that has killed as many as a half-million people, contributed to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II and allowed the Islamic State to emerge as a global terror threat. Their deal earlier this month would have created a new, joint U.S.-Russian center to coordinate counterterror attacks, had the truce and unfettered aid deliveries in Syria been protected for seven straight days. Neither commitment was met.

On Monday, Kerry called the convoy attack an “egregious violation” of the cease-fire and said the U.S. “will reassess the future prospects for cooperation with Russia.” Both Russia and Syria denied involvement; 20 civilians were killed and the United Nations suspended all aid deliveries pending a security review.

Neither Kerry nor Lavrov spoke to reporters Tuesday morning at the Palace Hotel in New York.

Lavrov’s ministry on Monday blamed rebels for violating the truce and threatening U.S.-Russian agreements. That was after Russia’s military said continuing rebel violations made it “meaningless” for the Syrian army to respect the deal.

Russia and Syria also have been sharply criticizing the U.S. since this weekend’s attack that killed 62 Syrian soldiers. Both have claimed it as proof of Washington supporting terrorist groups. The American military said it may have unintentionally struck the group while carrying out operations against IS, and said the strike was halted when Russia informed the U.S. of the apparent mistake.

Despite all the problems with the cease-fire, including numerous violations by both sides, the U.S. has few other options for ending the war. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the truce has yielded a “measure of reduced violence” and that aid also reached civilians on Monday.

A Syrian activist group said 92 people have been killed in Syria since the start of the cease-fire. They included 29 children and teenagers, as well as 17 women. The figure does not include dozens of Syrian soldiers and Islamic State militants killed in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday.