By Ayhan Simsek with additional reporting by Michael Hernandez in Washington
MUNICH (AA) — World and regional powers agreed Thursday to take steps toward halting the fighting in Syria with the goal of achieving a durable “cease-fire” in the near future.
“We have agreed to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities to begin in a target of one week’s time,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at the end of a foreign ministers level meeting of the International Syria Support Group in Munich with world and regional powers.
“To that end we have established a task force under the auspices of the UN and co-chaired by Russia and the U.S. And over the coming week this group will work to develop the modalities for a long-term, comprehensive and endurable cessation of violence of hostilities,” he said.
Kerry made the remarks at a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura following extended negotiations among 17 states that attended the meeting, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, as well as the Arab League, UN and the EU.
The top diplomat expressed hope that all regional powers would back the agreement.
“We will begin to exercise our influence, by the commitment of every country at the table immediately for a significant reduction in violence as we work towards the full cessation of hostilities,” he said.
Kerry refrained from using the word “cease-fire” while announcing the agreement.
When asked about his choice of phrase, Kerry said the two have different legal requirements, but with similar results.
“A cease-fire has great many legal prerogatives and requirements. A cessation of hostilities does not. But in many ways they have a similar effect,” he said.
“A cease-fire in the mind of many participants in this particular moment connotes something far more permanent and far more reflective of sort, of an end of conflict if you will. And it is not that,” he added.
Kerry emphasized that the agreement would not be applicable to terrorist organizations.
“This will apply to any and all parties in Syria with the exception of terrorist organizations Daesh and al-Nusra and any other terrorist organization designated by the UN Security Council,” he said.
Lavrov said that his country would continue its military airstrikes in Syria.
“The cease-fire will not be extended to ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra and other affiliated organizations that have been recognized as terrorist organization by the UN Security Council decision,” he said. “That is why our air forces will continue working against these organizations,” he said.
Since launching airstrikes in Syria at the end of September, Russia has come under international criticism amid reports Moscow is targeting civilians and Syrian opposition groups in an effort to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russian airstrikes have forced more than half-a-million residents to flee their homes and flow into Turkey and other regional states.
The International Syria Support Group said in a statement that humanitarian access in the country “will commence this week” while emphasizing the need for a prompt resumption in UN-sponsored peace talks.
The besieged towns of Deir ez-Zour, Kafrayah and Fouah will see simultaneous air delivery of aid this week, while areas of rural Damascus, Madaya, Mouadhimiyeh, and Kafr Batna will have land deliveries and it will “continue as long as humanitarian needs persist”.
The group pledged to exert all efforts to “facilitate rapid progress in these negotiations”.
That includes a commitment to broker a political transition plan within six months that focuses on the establishment of “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution”.
The polls are to follow within 18 months under UN auspices, and Syrians living in exile are to be allowed to participate. A task force to monitor the cessation of hostilities is also to be created under the UN.
It will delineate territory held by Daesh, al-Nusra and other UN Security Council designated terror groups, serve as a broker in any allegations of non-compliance, and refer persistent non-compliance to the group’s ministers to determine appropriate action”.
That will include “the exclusion of such parties from the arrangements for the cessation of hostilities and the protection it affords them.”
“Although a cessation of hostilities can facilitate humanitarian access, it cannot be a precondition for such access anywhere in Syria,” the statement warned. Syria has remained locked in a vicious civil war since early 2011, when the Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests — that erupted as part of the “Arab Spring” uprisings — with unexpected ferocity.
Since then, more than 250,000 people in the war-torn country have been killed and more than 10 million displaced, according to UN figures.
[Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C), Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L), and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (R), attend a news conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich, Germany, on February 12, 2016. Photographer: Lukas Barth/AA]