U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that the situation in Syria had "dramatically deteriorated" since the "brief oasis of calm" following a cessation- of-hostilities agreement, and he promised that the U.S. and Russia were close to a new agreement on a more durable arrangement.
Kerry spoke in Geneva after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. They discussed ways to agree on military cooperation and information sharing in a bid to defeat Islamic State militants in Syria — something both sides want.
Kerry said that Syrians benefited from the calm following the February accord, but that the gains were lost again when violations of the agreement began.
He said "the cessation, even flawed, was valuable." But he said violations "eventually became the norm, rather than the exception."
No military solution
Kerry said he and Lavrov agreed that there was no military solution to the Syrian situation.
He said the past few weeks of talks had been "fair, diligent, productive" and that the remaining "technical issues" would be worked out in the next few days, to "overcome the deep mistrust on all sides."
"The conflict will not end without a political solution," Kerry said. "It is really the only viable path towards peace and security and normalcy that the Syrian people deserve."
Kerry said the sides may differ about the causes for the rupture, but both agree more work is needed to revive the deal and make it enforceable. Until then, he says he does not want to make any announcement concerning a resumption of peace talks.
“We are determined to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and do the job necessary to make certain that if and when we are able to find the way forward, and we hope we can," he said. "As Sergei said, the work that can be done in the next week has the ability to resolve some of these remaining issues. But, until we have, neither of us are prepared to make an announcement that is predicated for failure.”
Lavrov said the two men had discussed the political agreement and also Syria's deep humanitarian crisis, in the flashpoint city of Aleppo as well as elsewhere, where civilians are isolated by the fighting and unable to get basic supplies for living.
He said the impending agreement would prove beneficial for those Syrians in need of aid. Like Kerry, he promised that just a few details remained before an agreement could be announced, saying "a couple of dots should be placed in correct places."
Lavrov also said he believed "everyday dialogue" was key for solving the Syrian problem. He also said he was convinced that the United States and Russia should have normal relations in order to move forward on the Syrian situation.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels and their families began evacuating the long-besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya as part of an agreement reached late Thursday with the government, after four years of airstrikes and siege left the suburb in ruins.
Under the terms of the deal, about 700 gunmen will be allowed safe exit to the opposition-held northern province of Idlib and 4,000 civilians will be taken temporarily to a shelter south of Daraya.
U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called for the protection of people being evacuated from Daraya, in a statement issued in Geneva.
De Mistura said their departure must be voluntary, adding that the U.N. was not consulted or involved in the negotiation of the deal reached between rebel factions and government forces.
In reference to the closely watched U.S.-Russia meeting, de Mistura said, “We are still working.” He joined the talks in the early afternoon.
Speaking during a lunchtime break, Lavrov said the talks on Syria with Kerry were “excellent.”
As he entered the morning session, Lavrov avoided commenting on a reporter’s question about what the primary impediment to a cease-fire in Syria was. He said only that "I don't want to spoil the atmosphere for the negotiations." Kerry did not make any comments.
Previous rounds of international negotiations, including discussions between the top diplomats from Washington and Moscow, have failed to produce an end to the conflict in Syria, which is complicated by U.S. and Russian support for opposite sides and has killed more than 290,000 people.
The conflict also has forced millions from their homes in more than five years.
Heightened regional tensions
Kerry's initial plan, unveiled during July talks in Moscow, would have Washington and Moscow coordinate airstrikes against Islamic State fighters and stop the Syrian air force from launching any further air attacks.
The latest meeting comes amid heightened tensions in Syria after Turkey decided earlier this week to send tanks across the border into Syria to clear out a pocket of land controlled by the Islamic State group.
U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters said they were withdrawing to their bases east of the Euphrates River after Turkey's military and allied fighters launched the cross-border offensive.
The Kurdish rebels have been a source of tension between the U.S., which views them as a key ally in the war in Syria, and Turkey, which sees them as terrorists allied with separatist Turkish Kurd factions.
A U.S.-led coalition spokesman said the Kurds moved east "to prepare for the eventual liberation of Raqqa." It was unclear, however, whether all the Kurdish forces had withdrawn, as Turkey demanded ahead of its offensive.
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told Arab media that Kurdish militia fighters were still fighting on the western side of the Euphrates River and had even captured some ground.
Turkey's foreign minister said Kerry had spoken with him in a phone call early Thursday and said the Syrian Kurdish forces would withdraw.
Vice President Joe Biden this week told Turkey's leaders the Kurds would lose U.S. support if they did not move back across the Euphrates.
Russia's Foreign Ministry expressed deep concern about the Turkish border operation, especially Turkey's targeting of Kurdish militia fighters. It said that Turkey, by targeting both Islamic State militants and Syrian Kurds, could further inflame the Syrian civil war, leading to "flare-ups of interethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs."
Middle East analyst Theodore Karasik told VOA that Turkey's military offensive on Syrian territory risked further complicating the war, influencing the shifting alliances among various militia factions that have made it difficult for any one side to dominate the conflict. He said Turkey risked escalating the conflict.
Lisa Schlein in Geneva and Ed Yeranian in Cairo contributed to this report.