U.S., Russia reach deal to reduce violence in Syria

Associated Press

Geneva — The United States and Russia early Saturday announced a breakthrough agreement on Syria that foresees a nationwide cease-fire starting next Monday, followed a week later by an unlikely new military partnership between the rival governments targeting the Islamic State and al-Qaida.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said shortly after midnight that the plan could reduce violence in Syria and lead to a long-sought political transition, ending more than five years of bloodshed. He called the deal a potential “turning point” in a conflict that has killed as many as 500,000 people, if complied with by Syria’s Russian-backed government and U.S.-supported rebel groups.

The cease-fire begins at sundown Sept. 12, Kerry said, coinciding with the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.

Kerry’s negotiating partner, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, confirmed the agreement and said it could help expand the counterterrorism fight and aid deliveries to Syrian civilians. He said Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government was prepared to comply.

“This is just the beginning of our new relations,” Lavrov said.

The deal culminates months of frenetic diplomacy that included four meetings between Kerry and Lavrov since Aug. 26, and a lengthy face-to-face in China between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. The arrangement hinges on Moscow pressuring Assad’s government to halt all offensive operations against Syria’s armed opposition and civilian areas. Washington must persuade “moderate” rebels to break ranks with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate, and other extremist groups.

Both sides have failed to deliver their ends of the bargain over several previous truces.

But the new arrangement goes further by promising a new U.S.-Russian counterterrorism alliance, only a year after Obama chastised Putin for a military intervention that U.S. officials said was mainly designed to keep Assad in power and target more moderate anti-Assad forces.

Russia, in response, has chafed at America’s financial and military assistance to groups that have intermingled with the Nusra Front on the battlefield. Kerry said it would be “wise” for opposition forces to separate completely from Nusra, a statement Lavrov hailed.

“Going after Nusra is not a concession to anybody,” Kerry said. “It is profoundly in the interests of the United States.”

The military deal would go into effect after both sides abide by the truce for a week and allow unimpeded humanitarian deliveries. Then, the U.S. and Russia would begin intelligence sharing and targeting coordination, while Assad’s forces would no longer be permitted to target Nusra any longer; they would be restricted to operations against the Islamic State.