Major Powers Agree to Seek Syria Ceasefire in One Week, but Fail to End Russian Airstrikes

Truce won't apply to ISIS, Nusrah Front, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry says; Diplomatic source says deal didn't include immediate end of Russian bombings.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend a news conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich, Germany, Feb. 12, 2016.
AP

Major powers agreed on Friday to a cessation of hostilities in Syria set to begin in a week and to provide rapid humanitarian access to besieged Syrian towns, but failed to secure a complete ceasefire or an end to Russian bombing. 

Following marathon talks in Munich, the powers, including the United States, Russia and more than a dozen other nations, reaffirmed their commitment to a political transition when conditions on the ground improved. 

But diplomats cautioned that Russia had until now not demonstrated any interest in seeing President Bashar Assad replaced and was pushing for a military victory. 

At a news conference, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the Munich meeting produced commitments on paper only. 

"What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground, in the field," he said, adding that "without a political transition, it is not possible to achieve peace." 

Kerry said the cessation of hostilities would not apply to Islamic State and other militant groups fighting in Syria, he added. Islamic State militants control large parts of Syria and Iraq. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the news conference that Russia would not stop air attacks in Syria, saying the cessation of hostilities did not apply to Islamic State and al Nusrah, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida. 

"Our airspace forces will continue working against these organizations," he said. 

The United States and European allies say few Russian strikes have targeted those groups, with the vast majority hitting Western-backed opposition groups. 

Lavrov said peace talks should resume in Geneva as soon as possible and that all Syrian opposition groups should participate. He added that halting hostilities would be a difficult task. 

But British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said ending fighting could only succeed if Russia stopped air strikes supporting Syrian government forces' advance against the opposition. 

Russia is carrying out bombing sorties around the key city of Aleppo, in support of advances by troops loyal to President Bashar Assad. The Aleppo offensive led to the collapse of the first peace talks in two years between the belligerents last week before they began.

While humanitarian access is critical to relieving the suffering of millions of Syrians in the short term, a durable and lasting ceasefire will be required if stalled negotiations between Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and the opposition are to resume on or before the UN-set target date of Feb. 25. The talks broke down last month before they really started, due largely to gains by Assad's military with the heavy backing of Russian airstrikes.

Russia had proposed a March 1 ceasefire, but the U.S. and others saw that as a ploy to give Moscow and the Syrian army three more weeks to try to crush Western- and Arab-backed rebels. The U.S. countered with demands for an immediate stop to the fighting. Both countries appeared to have made concessions on that front.

Despite the concession on potential timing of the truce and the agreement to set up the task force, the U.S., Russia and others remain far apart on which groups should be eligible for it. The new task force, which will include military officials, will take up a job that was supposed to have been settled months ago. At the moment, only two groups — the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front — are ineligible for the truce because they are identified as terrorist organizations by the United Nations.

Russia, Syria and Iran argue that other groups, notably some supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states, should not be eligible for the ceasefire, and there was no sign Friday that those differences had been resolved.

Lavrov said the Russian air campaign in support of Assad's military would continue against terrorist groups.