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US, Russia to jointly monitor Syria cease-fire

US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said they hoped that a partial Syria cease-fire would be extended to Aleppo after the United States and Russia agreed to create a joint Syria cease-fire monitoring operation in Geneva, but fighting raged on in the city.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) gestures next to United Nations Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland May 2, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse  - RTX2CF6Z

GENEVA AND WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State John Kerry, shuttling to Geneva for consultations with the United Nations, said he hoped that an announcement could be imminent as early as May 3 that a partial Syria cease-fire would be extended to Aleppo, after the United States and Russia agreed to expand a joint Syria cease-fire monitoring and enforcement operation out of the UN in Geneva. But even as Kerry and UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura consulted with the Russians on plans for an expanded, “24/7” Syria cease-fire monitoring mechanism, fighting raged on in Aleppo as Syrian state media accused rebels of an attack on a hospital a week after the regime was accused of attacks on three medical facilities; one of those attacks last week killed one hospital’s last pediatrician.

"The bottom line is, there is no justification for this horrific violence that targets civilians or medical facilities or first responders, no matter who it is," Kerry told journalists at the State Department May 3. "We condemn any of these attacks no matter who commits them." 

Also on May 3, de Mistura said after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, “We all hope — and we have to be cautious — that … perhaps in the next few hours, we will be able to have a relaunch of the cessation of hostilities. If that takes place, then we are on the right track again, and we have been preparing for that.”

Plans for a joint US-Russian Syria cease-fire monitoring operation, to include as many as 18 US military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel and their Russian counterparts and to be based at UN-provided offices in Geneva, were worked out on a whirlwind 36-hour Kerry shuttle to Geneva on May 1-2 and in phone calls with the Russians. Lavrov praised the idea of American and Russian personnel jointly staffing such a monitoring operations center, working out of the same offices, even as it was unclear exactly how joint US-Russian monitoring would mitigate against violations of the struggling Syria cessation of hostilities, which went into effect Feb. 27, but has deteriorated significantly in the past month.

“I think it will be much more efficient in terms of the day-to-day exchange of information, assessments and day-to-day [elaboration] of response measures,” Lavrov said at a news conference with de Mistura May 3. The United States and Russia have been video conferencing between centers in Amman and Khmeimim (a Syrian air base Russia uses), and only on several occasions have the heads of those centers met face to face.

“Right now we will have a permanent monitoring center where United States and Russian counterparts will be sitting at the same table,” Lavrov said. “They will be looking at the same maps. They will be analyzing proposals and they will work together to make sure that any violations are nipped in the bud. Probably this is a major step forward toward a more intensive coordination of the efforts by Russia and the US and with the US-led anti-terrorist coalition generally.”

De Mistura acknowledged that the Syria cease-fire would be imperfect, but said that the joint monitoring mechanism could help in containing violations and preventing them from escalating.

“I have seen many cessation of hostilities or cease-fires taking place in many conflicts, much less complicated sometimes than this one. And very rarely they are perfect,” de Mistura said. “There has been and there are constant infringements, but the secret is actually to be able to contain it and to avoid it to become a bush fire, which has been the case the other day in Aleppo — that's why it needs to be contained.”

“And an operations center as effective as the one we have been working on can and must do that, and becomes immediate, real-time containment operation, through the influence each side can have,” de Mistura said.

But in a sign that agreement on a joint monitoring mechanism may not shift divergent American and Russian views of culpability in the civil war or on the role of Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s political future, Kerry laid the blame squarely on the Syrian regime for “unconscionable” attacks on three Aleppo-area hospitals and clinics last week that killed dozens of people, and said it had to stop.

“There are three (Aleppo-area) health clinics now, one major hospital, that have been attacked from the air by bombs,” Kerry told journalists at a media stakeout with de Mistura outside Geneva’s Hotel President Wilson May 2. “There are only two air forces flying in that particular area, and the Russians are clear that they were not engaged or flying at that time.”

“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,” Kerry said. “And the attack on this hospital is on unconscionable, under any standard anywhere. It has to stop.”

Whether Americans and Russians working out of the same Geneva offices to monitor the cease-fire with the same maps increases the pressure on them, and their leverage over their respective proxies and allies to bring a halt to such atrocities, remains to be seen. Or it could be that the operations center will just become another forum to engage in tit-for-tat sniping between two sides that have fundamentally different views of the Syrian civil war.

Lavrov, for his part, made little secret that he had been resisting a call by de Mistura to hold another meeting of the 20-member International Syria Support Group, and sought to turn blame for the recent fraying of the Syria cease-fire on the other side. As the United States repeatedly calls on Russia to pressure Assad to stop such atrocities as air attacks on hospitals, and to let more humanitarian aid be delivered, Lavrov said Washington should press the Syrian opposition to return to intra-Syrian political talks they walked out of in Geneva last round, in protest to the regime hindering aid access in several areas, not releasing detainees and mounting violations of the cessation of hostilities.

“We call upon … the United States first of all … to use their leverage with the US-led coalition to make sure that there are no ultimatums like this aimed to undermine the peaceful talks,” Lavrov said. “Every decision must be on consensus basis between the opposition and the government, otherwise we will see more risks in this key part of the region.”

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