Syrian deal unlikely as US and Russian officials meet for talks

Senior US officials have played down hopes of an imminent cease-fire agreement for Syria as US Secretary of State John Kerry opened a fourth set of negotiations with his Russian counterpart in the last two weeks. Previously, officials suggested Kerry would not travel to the Swiss city unless a deal was clearly at hand.

Officials suggested that John Kerry would not travel. Picture: Getty

The talks between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov aim to produce a nationwide cease-fire in Syria after more than five years of warfare and as many as 500,000 deaths.

A deal hinges on an unlikely US-Russian military partnership that would come into force if Moscow can pressure its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, to halt offensive operations. Washington, meanwhile, would have to persuade the anti-Assad rebels it supports to end any coordination with al-Qaida and other extremist groups.

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Neither side has succeeded in doing its part despite months of diplomacy. And the task may be getting even more difficult as fighting rages around the divided city of Aleppo, Syria’s most populous and the new focus of the conflict.

Assad’s government appeared to tighten its siege of the former Syrian commercial hub on Thursday, following several gains over the weekend. Forty days of fighting in Aleppo has killed nearly 700 civilians, including 160 children, according to a Syrian human rights group.

The senior US officials accompanying Kerry to Geneva said they could not guarantee an agreement and more talks may be needed. Aleppo will be a large part of the discussions, they said, along with the technical details of a cease-fire, defining everything from how far back from demilitarised areas combatants would have to stay to the types of weapons they would need to withdraw from front lines.

Kerry and Lavrov began their discussions yesterday morning in Geneva. It was unclear how long the talks would go on.

Since 26 August, Kerry and Lavrov have now met twice each in Geneva and in China on the sidelines of a global economic summit.