At the 11th hour, a groundbreaking deal between the U.S. and Russia to broker a ceasefire in Syria is in jeopardy.
Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that a “couple of tough issues” are holding up a military and intelligence sharing agreement with Russia that would partner them in a fight against al Qaeda and ISIS-linked terrorists in Syria. Russia is now wavering on some of the most technical details and commitments that the U.S. had thought were settled, according to U.S. officials.
“We’ve agreed to meet tomorrow morning and see whether or not it is possible to bridge the gap, come to conclusion on those couple of issues,” Kerry told reporters gathered at what was meant to be a joint U.S.-Russian press event to unveil the deal. Syrian opposition sources told CBS News that the U.S. had circulated a letter to its political leaders informing them that an understanding had been reached with Moscow.
U.S. officials hoped to reach agreement on Sunday before Presidents Obama and Putin meet Monday on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China. The two will likely still meet, but expectations for a breakthrough are low.
Earlier in the day, President Obama said he had “some skepticism” about a deal with Russia, given that Moscow’s support for the Assad regime has prolonged and exacerbated the violence. Yet he said this diplomatic deal was “worth trying” in the hope it would ultimately help to end the brutal six year long war.
“But if we do not get some buy-in from the Russians on reducing the violence and easing the humanitarian crisis, then it’s difficult to see how we get to the next phase,” he said. Hours later, the deal began to unravel during negotiations between Kerry and his Russian counterpart.
After many failed attempts at convincing Russia to abandon its support for Assad, this is a last ditch effort by the Obama Administration to stop the killing and flow of refugees from Syria. An estimated five million Syrians refugees have fled the country during the past six years of war while more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed.
The proposed deal with Russia would include grounding Assad’s own air force to prevent it from continuing its bombing and chemical attacks on civilians and US-backed rebels. In turn, food and medical aid deliveries will be allowed into besieged cities like Aleppo where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped due to the joint assaults by Syrian and Russian forces.
U.S. and Russian diplomats have spent weeks pouring over maps of besieged cities like Aleppo to pinpoint who would staff checkpoints on roadways to allow in UN aid deliveries originating in Turkey. The U.S. has often accused Assad’s military of stopping trucks carrying supplies to besieged areas and then pilfering the medical good for their own use. Now Russian and American diplomats are haggling over who controls which roadways and also struggling with how to disentangle the US-backed moderate opposition from militant groups with links to extremists who operate in close proximity on the battlefield.
Begrudgingly, U.S. officials admit that partnering with Russia will give Putin the type of “global player” status that he has long sought and help cast his bloody military intervention in Syria as legitimately focused on terrorism.
It is a striking change in strategy for the U.S. to even consider forming a military alliance with Russia. When Putin first intervened, the White House warned Moscow that it would be “sucked into a quagmire” and said that strengthening the Assad regime would only guarantee that the war to oust him would continue and that extremists like ISIS would flourish inside the ungoverned portions of the war zone. Now a year after Russia’s intervention it appears that Putin has made himself indispensable.