GENEVA — Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met here Friday to try to rescue fading hopes for a truce in the Syrian civil war that would stop the bombing of civilian and rebel areas by Russian and Syrian government forces and initiate coordinated U.S.-Russian attacks on agreed terrorist groups.
Asked about the possibility for success, as the two shook hands and sat down in a Geneva lakeside hotel, Lavrov said, “I don’t want to spoil the atmosphere for the negotiations.”
More than two hours into their meeting, Kerry and Lavrov were joined by United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura, who on Thursday issued the latest in a series of urgent appeals for progress. De Mistura also wants immediate agreement on a complete, 48-hour pause in fighting in the divided city of Aleppo, where rebels and the government have blocked each other’s access routes to humanitarian aid for more than a million civilians stranded under brutal air and ground fire.
Kerry first made the truce and coordination proposal during a visit to Moscow last month. Since then, the carnage in Syria has only increased, with Aleppo becoming a humanitarian disaster zone and aid still blocked to nearly two dozen similarly beseiged towns and cities.
A U.S.-Russian military and intelligence working group has agreed on maps demarcating the primary locations of the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham extremist groups, places where those groups are mixed with U.S-backed rebel fighters and areas primarily populated by civilians. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or Front for the Conquest of Syria, formally split from al-Qaeda last month and changed its name from Jabhat al-Nusra.
Under the proposal, the Syrian government would cease combat air operations altogether, the rebels would stop firing at government positions, and only the two terrorist groups — the Islamic State and the Front — would be targeted by coordinated U.S. and Russian airstrikes.
“We believe the teams have done a good job working out the technicalities. There are still issues that need to be ironed out,” a senior State Department official said.
“We’re hopeful that today could see resolution on at least some of them, and that we can move this plan forward, but we’re mindful of the challenges,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity as the closed-door session began. “I just wouldn’t be able to predict an outcome.”
Russia has said that it cannot agree until the United States and its coalition partners are able to sufficiently separate the rebel groups it backs from the terrorist fighters in areas where they overlap.
For its part, the United States has said that Russia and the Syrian air force have used the overlap as a smokescreen to continue their attacks on rebel groups fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
A U.N. investigation this week confirmed that the Syrian government has used chlorine gas bombs in its attacks on civilians. Weaponized chlorine has been determined by the U.N. Security Council to be a chemical weapon, violating a 2013 agreement imposed on Syria by the United States and Russia, against chemical weapons use.
U.S. refusal to become a direct participant in the civil war, even as it escalates its air attacks against the Islamic State and says it will target the Front, has become increasingly difficult to implement on the ground as the once-separate battlefields have edged closer together and multiple forces are fighting with different agendas.
This week, Turkey entered the fray, sending tanks, troops and aircraft across the Syrian border to help U.S.-backed rebels drive Islamic State fighters out of the key border town of Jarabulus. But equally high on the Turkish agenda was preventing U.S.-supported Syrian Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State from occupying Jarabulus and the surrounding border area.
Russian media reported Friday that Moscow has asked Turkey for information on its air operations inside Syria. The Russian Defense Ministry wants “to prevent air incidents because it will be the first time when Turkish warplanes will intensively bomb targets in Syria and may meet Russian warplanes in midair,” a ministry official said, according to the newspaper Izvestia.
The United States and Russia already have a “deconfliction” agreement to avoid collisions in the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. Under the U.S.-proposed coordination deal, which the White House has approved over Pentagon objections, Russian and American planners would coordinate targets in real time and agree on whose aircraft would strike them.
Separate from the coordination deal, Russia has proposed a weekly, 48-hour pause in fighting in Aleppo that would allow aid deliveries to the rebel-held eastern part of the city along the Castello Road, the main rebel and aid supply line north to Turkey that was cut weeks ago by Russian and Syrian bombardment.
In response, a Front-led offensive in the south of the city pushed through government lines to the rebel south and is now attacking government-held western Aleppo. The Front and the rebels have not yet agreed on the proposed pause.
De Mistura said that U.N. aid convoys are now loaded and ready to move into the city. “We want a pause for 48 hours,” he said. “The Russian Federation replied ‘yes.’ We will wait for others to do the same. But we are ready, trucks are ready, and they can leave anytime we get that message.”
Jan Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator, said Thursday that the initial plan is “two convoys of 20 trucks each that would carry enough food for 80,000 people in eastern Aleppo . . . that would come via the famous Castello Road, which is the safest and most direct route.”
The second element, he said, “is to have simultaneous distributions . . . in western Aleppo, where needs have also increased dramatically of late. . . . That will be led cross-line mostly from the Damascus side and with supplies that we have now been able to pre-position in western Aleppo.”
The third element of hthe plan, he said, is to repair Aleppo’s electrical plant, which supplies 1.8 million people on both sides with both electricity and water. Both sides, Egeland said, “are united in this longing for water and this suffering without water.”
But a spokesman for the Aleppo Revolutionaries, the operation room of rebels in eastern Aleppo, on Friday rejected the Castello Road plan, saying that allowing passage through the lines of government forces now holding it would show “bias in favor of the regime, which has cut off the path by targeting it . . . killing hundreds of innocent citizens and then controlling it.”
The rebels accused the United Nations of “collaboration with the Assad regime” and of considering it “a partner.” They said the United Nations was being “forced in some instances to kowtow to the criminal regime,” adding that it was “no secret to anyone that international organizations are criminal collaborators” with the Assad government.
Sending aid to Aleppo when other areas of Syria remain surrounded by government forces is unacceptable, the rebels said. “We as one Syrian people cannot accept aid at a time when international organizations cannot send aid to other cities under siege.”
The statement came amid reports that rebel forces that have occupied the Damascus suburb of Darayya for four years have agreed to leave the town in exchange for evacuation of 8,000 remaining residents.
Heba Habib in Stockholm contributed to this report.