World powers have agreed on a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria that could serve as a bridge towards the resumption of genuine peace talks later this month.
Emerging from a marathon meeting that stretched late into the night in Munich on Thursday, United States Secretary of State John Kerry said the powers had agreed on a plan that had the potential to “change the daily lives of the Syrian people”.
“Today in Munich we believe we have made progress on both the humanitarian front and the cessation of hostilities front,” Kerry said.
I think that we are headed towards a greater disaster beyond that which has characterised Syria for the last five years.
“We have agreed on a nationwide cessation of hostilities” starting one week from now, he said.
“This will apply to any and all parties in Syria, except for Daesh [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL] and al Nusra,” he added.
Importantly, the term “ceasefire” was not included in the plan – despite earlier calls from all sides for a more definite agreement.
Ministers at Thursday’s talks wrangled over three core issues: a gradual cessation of hostilities with a firm end date, humanitarian access to cities being besieged by both sides and a commitment that Syrian parties return to Geneva for political negotiations.
Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, said that ending the fighting could only succeed if Russia stopped air strikes supporting Syrian government forces’ advance against the opposition.
“If implemented fully and properly … this [deal] will be an important step towards relieving the killing and suffering in Syria,” Hammond said in a statement.
A Western diplomatic source said: “We did not get a deal on the immediate end of Russian bombings, but we have a commitment to a process that if it works would change the situation.”
Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said now that an integrated approach had been decided, he hoped that “the opposition and those who control various groups of opposition will have no more reasons to somehow avoid meeting their obligations”.
“As John [Kerry] said, we have agreed to set up a taskforce which will have a meeting in Geneva tomorrow and will be working on a regular basis, co-chaired by Russia and the United States, with the participation of experts, and the goal of this taskforce is to help the UN and other humanitarian agencies to carry out their obligations with regard to civilians,” Lavrov said.
“It has also underscored the task to resume the negotiation process that was suspended against the backdrop when a part of the opposition took an unconstructive stance and tried to put preconditions.
“We have written down that talks should resume as soon as possible in strict compliance with resolution 2254, that is without any ultimatums, without any preconditions. And talks should include a wide range of opposition forces,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from Munich, said while what was achieved “reads well on paper, the big test now will be turning it into reality on the ground”.
Nader Hashemi, an associate professor of the University of Denver, told Al Jazeera that he was also sceptical about the so-called pact.
“It’s interesting to even note that they did not use the word ceasefire. It’s cessation of hostilities, a much more ambiguous term, which basically means Russia and Assad can do whatever they want and the international community will have to simply live with it,” Hashemi said.
“I think that we are headed towards a greater disaster beyond that which has characterised Syria for the last five years.”
The negotiations, which included the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with an aim of restarting peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition, took place against the backdrop of a fierce fight for control of Syria’s Aleppo province, which continued unabated.
The Syrian government, backed by Russian air strikes, launched a major offensive from the north of Aleppo and captured several strategically important towns earlier this month.
The offensive has led to the displacement of more than 50,000 civilians from Aleppo, tens of thousands of whom have amassed in camps at the Turkish border.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Wednesday that at least 500 people, including 89 civilians, had been killed since the offensive on Aleppo began on February 1.