WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia will meet in Geneva on Feb. 19 for consultations on how to implement a Syria truce, as UN aid agencies said they were able to deliver 100 trucks of humanitarian aid to five besieged Syrian towns, in what the United States called a “step forward.”
"Today, we reached five besieged towns in urgent need of humanitarian assistance,” UN Syria humanitarian coordinator Yacoub el-Hillo said in a press release Feb. 17. “The convoys contained life-saving aid including food, medical supplies and equipment, vaccines, water and sanitation items for almost 100,000 people in need of aid."
“This is hopefully the beginning of the end of Syrian civilians’ suffering,” said the UN's Jan Egeland said.
The United States called the humanitarian deliveries a good first step and said it would like to build on the progress.
“This is a step forward,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told journalists at the State Department press briefing Feb. 17. “[But] I would be clear that this is just a first step in dealing with the significant problem of humanitarian assistance in besieged areas. … The Assad regime should have allowed this access long ago.”
“We are hoping to build on this access,” Toner said, adding the United States was concerned Assad's regime had described the permission to let the aid convoys in as a temporary. “We obviously want to see permanent access.”
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was in Syria to oversee the aid delivery efforts and hold consultations on the second goal announced by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Munich on Feb. 12, to pursue what the 20-member group called a “cessation of hostilities.”
With progress on the humanitarian aid delivery to Syrian besieged areas, US officials said talks were expected to proceed between US and Russian officials in Geneva later this week, under UN auspices, on how to implement the truce.
“We understand the ISSG cessation of hostilities task force will convene Feb. 19 in Geneva under UN auspices,” the US official said. “It will be open to all ISSG members,” which include, in addition to the US and Russia, international and regional stakeholders in the Syrian conflict, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, China, as well as the European Union, UN and Arab League.
Rob Malley, President Barack Obama’s special assistant and top National Security Council adviser on the Middle East, will lead the American delegation to the Feb. 19 Geneva consultations, which will also include State Department officials, Toner said.
The ISSG cease-fire task force, to be co-chaired by the United States and Russia, is supposed to include both political and military officials. Russia has been pressing for more intensive US-Russian military to military consultations on Syria, which to date the United States has been reluctant to pursue.
But the consultations between military officers would be necessary to implement any eventual cease-fire and police it, Toner said.
“In the past few months, we have been hesitant to cooperate more robustly on airstrikes and targeting of some of these groups with Russia, because we have not seen that it [Russia] is really even targeting Daesh or ISIL [IS] in its airstrikes,” Toner said Feb. 17.
The situation is a “little different here,” Toner said. “There needs to be coordination among all the members of the ISSG on the ground if we are going to get to a credible cessation of hostilities and eventually a cease-fire. … It is going to be incumbent on various members of the ISSG who back different forces who are reluctant to join a cease-fire. Once we get a cease-fire in place, we can then attempt to police that. … But at some level, we are going to have … to have that coordination and awareness on both sides.”
With progress to show on the humanitarian front, American and UN officials hope to reconvene talks by Feb. 25 between the Syrian government and opposition in Geneva that were suspended earlier this month.
“The Geneva talks [are] set to begin again … between the opposition and regime next week, having some concrete progress to point to on the ground, whether with regard to cessation of hostilities or access to besieged areas,” Toner said.
But US officials and regional experts were cautious about prospects for a partial cease-fire to get off the ground, with the regime and its backers pursuing what they described as a strategy to seal off the Turkish-Syrian border and encircle Aleppo.
“Look, I really think the regime now and its allies … want to get to the Turkish border and encircle Aleppo and regain control of Aleppo,” Randa Slim, who heads Track 2 programs at the Middle East Institute, told Al-Monitor. “Part of their campaign is to drive a wedge between the local population and the opposition.”
Former State Department Syria adviser Fred Hof said the US strategy on Syria was largely dependent on the goodwill of Russia to deliver the Assad regime.
“I imagine John Kerry will try to keep the ball rolling process-wise,” Hof, now with the Atlantic Council, told al-Monitor. “What else does he have? In terms of getting the opposition back to Geneva he has a prayer if there's genuine progress on the humanitarian front, particularly with respect to sieges. But … he is totally dependent on the goodwill, decency and compassion of Russia's president, Iran's supreme leader, and Syria's barrel-bomber-in-chief. Let's hope he's the most persuasive human being alive.”
Syrian opposition activists said the Russian strategy on the ground appeared to be to continue to decimate more moderate opposition groups and have Kurdish allies and pro-regime forces on the front lines with IS in order to eventually get the international community to work with regime forces to fight IS.
“On the ground today, it’s very clear. The Russians are killing everyone,” Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat in Washington who supports the opposition, told Al-Monitor on Feb. 17. “The Russians … are looking these days to block any Syrian moderate forces to be on the border with Daesh.”
“They want the regime and Kurds to be face to face with [IS],” Barabandi said. “Because when the regime faces [IS] on all fronts, the opposition loses benefits and needs support. All the moderate military guys go for a cease-fire, stay at home. … And then the Russians tell the international community, work with the Syrian regime, to re-legitimize him.”
The United States and Russia, meantime, traded barbs over who is responsible for securing a cease-fire.
"It's put up or shut up," Toner said Feb. 16 on whether Russia would deliver on its Syria cease-fire promises.
"Everything depends on the Americans, on whether they will be ready to cooperate on a military level," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists Feb. 17.
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