The crisis in Syria has reached a turning point, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday, and decisions made in the near future could either end the war or “define a very difficult set of choices for the future.”
“We hope this week can be a week of change,” Kerry told the Munich Security Conference in Germany.
"This moment is a hinge point," Kerry said, using a seldom-heard phrase in English that means a turning point at which significant change occurs.
"Decisions made in the coming days, weeks and months can end the war in Syria," Kerry continued. "Or, if the wrong choices are made, they can open the door to even wider conflict."
Support for European allies
Kerry stressed two main themes in his address to the global forum about security policy:
He emphasized the United States' strong support for its allies in Europe as they confront multiple crises, including the tide of refugees from the Syrian civil war and the uneasy situation in Ukraine between the Kiev government and Russian-supported separatists.
The top U.S. diplomat also spoke at length about the international effort to bring about a cease-fire in Syria, and the focus on ensuring that humanitarian aid can reach besieged civilian areas.
'Defining challenge of our generation'
"Perhaps most urgently," Kerry added, "the United States and Europe are at the forefront of facing what has become a defining challenge of our generation: the fight against violent extremism."
He singled out the Islamic State terror group, declaring "we're going after their fighters" and "destroying their economic lifeline."
Using his customary term Daesh —a scornful Arabic acronym — to refer to the Islamic State group, Kerry said: "We're going to defeat Daesh and... our progress is measurable and growing on a steady basis."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, and UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson on Feb. 11, 2016, at the Hilton Hotel join Munich, Germany.
Summing up two days of talks among members of the International Syria Support group, Kerry said all sides agreed to work for a quick end to the violence in Syria as an essential first step toward a political solution to the five-year civil war. Despite the U.N. Security Council's demand that "all parties immediately cease any attacks against civilians," he said the Damascus regime's offensive aimed at civilian areas has only increased.
WATCH: Kerry Criticizes Russian Airstrikes in Syria
Russia has continued its airstrikes in northern Syria since the plan for a partial truce was announced early Friday, Moscow's spokesmen have insisted repeatedly that their forces are not targeting civilians. Kerry refuted those claims in his speech Saturday, although he deleted from his text remarks criticizing Russia directly.
"Free-fall bombs are being used, which are not precise," Kerry said. "We all know civilians are being killed."
Stalls are seen on a street beside damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 10, 2016.
More talks by Kerry, Lavrov
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Kerry met for hastily arranged private talks late Saturday in Munich. Lavrov had said earlier that Russian and military leaders should work together to help arrange a cease-fire in Syria.
The ISSG, which includes Russia, has declared a "cessation of hostilities" should begin in Syria by Friday, but the terms of that partial cease-fire are being widely questioned.
Lavrov said that everyday military cooperation between Washington and Moscow in particular is “the key tool” to ensure delivery of humanitarian supplies and an end to hostilities. Until now, Lavrov said, U.S.-Russian military contacts about Syria have not gone beyond an agreement to avoid incidents among military aircraft.
Russia, Ukraine urged to resolve differences
Kerry also addressed the ongoing unrest in Ukraine during his speech, which took place shortly before he sat down for talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) listens to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko before their meeting at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 13, 2016.
Their talks took place as a multi-national effort is underway to resolve instability in eastern Ukraine and fully implement the Minsk agreement, which calls for a cease-fire between the government and Russian-backed separatists.
Kerry said Russia had a “simple choice” – fully implement the Minsk agreement or continue to face “economically damaging” sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union.
“The path to sanctions relief is clear,” said Kerry. “Withdraw weapons and troops from Donbas; ensure that all Ukrainian hostages are returned; allow full humanitarian access to occupied territories.”
He added that Ukraine had responsibilities to respect the Minsk agreement as well.
Officials from both Russia and Ukraine referenced the ongoing tensions during their speeches to the security conference.
“Mr. Putin [Russian President Vladimir Putin], this is not a civil war in Ukraine. This is your aggression,” said President Poroshenko.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told the group, "Without doubt, all sides have to abide to the Minsk agreement, but primarily the implementation depends on the authorities in Kiev.”
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (R) and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attend the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 13, 2016.