Russia Says Syria Cease-Fire Deal Close But Blames U.S. Delays

(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a potential Syria cease-fire deal was getting closer in Geneva but expressed frustration that Secretary of State John Kerry was waiting for U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to sign off on the compromise.

“It takes five hours for our friends to check with Washington,” Lavrov told reporters Friday after hours of talks. Asked if he and Kerry had agreed on the text of an accord, Lavrov said, “We are there. I don’t know where our friends are.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby responded that consultations within the U.S. administration were continuing. “There is no delay,” he told reporters in the Swiss city. “We are still discussing it in Washington.”

The back-and-forth reflected the gamesmanship that has persisted as the U.S. and Russia have tried and failed over months to find a joint path in resolving Syria’s 5 1/2-year civil war.

Kerry and Lavrov held meetings throughout the day on Friday in their latest attempt to overcome the deadlock. U.S. officials said that a key focus was the need to bring an end to the siege of the war-ravaged northern city of Aleppo, the country’s former commercial capital. Some 300,000 civilians are trapped in the rebel-held eastern part of the city, worsening a humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. has been locked in tough negotiations with Russia, whose military intervention in Syria last year reversed the course of the war in favor of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The two countries had hoped to conclude a deal in Geneva almost two weeks ago and then again last weekend in China, where world leaders had gathered for the Group of 20 summit, but came away empty-handed. In a sign of the obstacles, the two sides initially disagreed with each other publicly over whether this Geneva round would even take place.

Faysal Itani, an analyst with the Atlantic Council in Washington, predicted a U.S.-Russian accord. “Whether the local parties agree or abide” by it “is, of course, another matter,” he said.

The State Department said in a statement the goal is to reduce violence, expand humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people and move toward a political solution needed to end the civil war.

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 280,000 people and sent millions fleeing to neighboring countries and Europe. It has also let Islamic State seize territory that it’s used as a base to direct and inspire terrorist attacks worldwide. A partial “cessation of hostilities” in Syria brokered by the U.S. and Russia in February quickly broke down, and broader talks in Geneva over a political solution to the crisis have stalemated.

Sharing Intelligence

The U.S. has proposed sharing intelligence with Russia to carry out strikes against Islamic State as well as the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, now known as Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham. Under this plan, after a cease-fire, Syria’s air force would be grounded in parts of the country in an effort to halt the humanitarian crisis and end the bombing of moderate opposition groups that are supported by the U.S. and its allies. That would enable the various parties to come to the table for talks on a political settlement.

A key concern for Russia is that the al-Qaeda wing Nusra Front -- which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham -- has in many cases teamed up with moderate rebels the U.S. supports, particularly in and around Aleppo. A Russian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are confidential predicted that any agreement is going to be difficult to implement.

Demilitarized Corridors

According to the text of a letter reportedly sent by U.S. special envoy to Syria, Michael Ratney, to Syrian opposition groups, and published by Arabic media, Russia would have to agree to set up two demilitarized humanitarian corridors for Aleppo as well as halt bombing of areas where the rebels are based.

U.S. officials said the deal would include arrangements to man checkpoints in demilitarized zones and for a cease-fire and humanitarian aid.

Any accord with the Russians must ensure the lifting of the siege of Aleppo, said one U.S. official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity while Kerry was still en route to Geneva, according to a transcript posted by the State Department.

Assad’s forces, backed by pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia and Russian air power, this week cut off the last rebel supply line to the opposition-held part of Aleppo, restoring a siege that was broken last month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Syrian troops and their allies also retook almost all the territory lost since a July 31 offensive by the opposition forces in south and southwestern Aleppo province, according to the group, which monitors the conflict through activists on the ground.