'Provisional agreement' reached on Syria ceasefire
AMMAN, JORDAN — Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that a "provisional agreement" has been reached on a cease-fire that could begin in the next few days in Syria's five-year civil war.
Kerry said he spoke in the morning with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss terms of a cease-fire and the two now must reach out to the parties in the conflict.
He declined to go into the details of the agreement, saying it "is not yet done." But he said he hoped President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin would talk soon and that after that, implementation could begin.
"The modalities for a cessation of hostilities are now being completed," Kerry said. "In fact, we are closer to a cease-fire today than we have been. A cessation of hostilities ... is possible over the course of these next hours."
The Russian Foreign Ministry seemed to stop short of Kerry's announcement. The ministry said Lavrov and Kerry spoke on the phone Sunday for a second day in a row and discussed "the modality and conditions" for a cease-fire in Syria that would exclude groups that the U.N. Security Council considers terrorist organizations.
Fighting has intensified in Syria during recent weeks and an earlier deadline to cease military activities was not observed. The United States, Russia and other world powers agreed Feb. 12 on a deal calling for the ceasing of hostilities within a week, the delivery of urgently needed aid to besieged areas of Syria and a return to peace talks in Geneva.
U.N. envoy Staffan De Mistura halted the latest Syria talks on Feb. 3, because of major differences between the two sides, exacerbated by increased aerial bombings and a wide military offensive by Syrian troops and their allies under the cover of Russian airstrikes. The humanitarian situation has only gotten worse, with an estimated 13.5 million Syrians in need of aid, including 6 million children.
"Peace is better than more war," Kerry said, standing next to Nasser Judeh, the foreign minister of Jordan, which hosts 635,000 Syrian refugees. "A political solution is better than then a futile attempt to try to find a military one that could result in so many more refugees, so many more jihadists, so much more destruction, and possibly even the complete destruction of Syria itself."
However, he reiterated the long-time U.S. position that any political solution to the conflict will not work if Syrian President Bashar Assad remains at the helm of the nation. "Make no mistake. The answer to the Syrian civil war will not be found in any military alliance with Assad," Kerry said. "Let me make that clear."
He said Russia now has to talk with the Syrian government and Iran, which backs Assad, and the U.S. has to talk with the opposition and members of the International Syria Support Group. He said he knows that not every party will automatically agree to the agreement reached for a ceasefire.
"There is a stark choice for everybody here," Kerry said.
"I know how much work remains and I don't know if everyone is going to meet their commitments," Kerry said. "I can't vouch for that — the United States can't make certain of that."
He said enforcement issues still need to be resolved in addition to how any breaches will be addressed.
"These are details that have to be determined if it going to be effective," Kerry said.
Later, Kerry met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman and was scheduled to fly to Aqaba for an evening meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II.
On the ground in Syria, a pair of explosions ripped through the central city of Homs, killing at least 32 people and wounding dozens, according to activists and Syrian state TV.
The Homs blasts came amid reports that Syrian government forces captured 31 villages in the northern province of Aleppo from the extremist Islamic State group. Syrian troops have been on the offensive in different parts of the country under the cover of Russian airstrikes.
The television report said Sunday's blasts struck in the pro-government neighborhood of Zahraa — a frequent target for similar explosions. The report quoted Homs governor Talal Barrazi as saying that 32 people were killed and dozens of others wounded.
Most of the bombing attacks in Homs over the past months have been claimed by IS, which controls parts of Homs province including the historic town of Palmyra.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists around Syria, said the blasts killed 46 and wounded more than 100. The explosions took place just after 6 a.m. local time, and both the Observatory and the TV report said they were caused by a pair of car bombs.
The television report aired footage of the destruction caused by the blasts. Debris and mangled cars filled the streets and the charred body of a man was seen being taken away on a stretcher.
The Zahra neighborhood is predominantly Alawite, the minority Muslim sect to which President Bashar Assad belongs.
Homs, once dubbed the capital of the Syrian revolution, has been hit with a wave of explosions in recent months, killing and wounding scores of people. The rebels controlled large parts of Homs after the uprising against Assad's government began in March 2011.
With time, the government gained control of most of Homs' neighborhoods and a deal was reached late last year for militants to evacuate the last rebel-held neighborhood of Waer.
Two blasts hit the Zahra neighborhood on Jan. 26, killing 20 and wounding more than 100 people.
To the north, the Syrian army captured 31 villages on Sunday that were controlled by IS, according to the pro-Syrian Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV and Hezbollah's Al-Manar station.
Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar often have reporters embedded with Syrian troops in northern Syria.
Syrian state media earlier reported that Syrian troops had captured some 10 villages in Aleppo province from IS.
Mroue reported from Beirut.
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