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U.S.-Russia deal on Syria will test influence of big powers, convictions of those on the ground

A little girl is rescued from the rubble after a reported airstrike in a rebel-held part of Aleppo, Syria, on Sept. 10, 2016. The U.S. and Russia reached agreement on an initiative to halt the warfare in Syria.

A little girl is rescued from the rubble after a reported airstrike in a rebel-held part of Aleppo, Syria, on Sept. 10, 2016. The U.S. and Russia reached agreement on an initiative to halt the warfare in Syria.

(Thaer Mohammed / AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is hailing its new initiative with Russia to halt the warfare in Syria as a potential “turning point” in one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history.

But the room for doubt that the complex agreement announced early Saturday will work is enormous, hardened by years of broken promises and cynical gambits by the warring parties and their backers.

On paper at least, both the U.S. and Russia come away from marathon negotiations with components they demanded.

If the agreement takes hold, Washington and Moscow would form a new military alliance laser-focused on Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, a cooperation seemingly unthinkable amid the two countries’ tense relations of late.

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And it would finally spare the people of Syria — especially in the besieged city of Aleppo, where civilians are being killed daily — from steady bomb attacks and provide them with desperately needed sustenance under a temporary cease-fire and the opening of some humanitarian aid routes.

But once again, the world’s top diplomats have punted on the fate of Syria’s widely reviled, Russian-backed leader, President Bashar Assad, setting no clear provisions for his removal. That, in turn, leaves questions unanswered as to a permanent solution for the war in Syria, arguably one of the most vexing and tragically handled crises in the outgoing Obama administration.

No one is building this based on trust.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry

Secretary of State John F. Kerry acknowledged both the make-or-break nature of the violence in Syria and efforts to decrease it, and the inherent difficulties of success.

“No one is building this based on trust,” Kerry said at a brief news conference in Geneva in the wee hours Saturday, with his partner in negotiations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at his side.

“But let me be clear: Out of all of this complexity there is emerging now a simple choice between war and peace; between human agony and humanitarian relief; between the continued disintegration of an ancient society and the rebirth of a united and modern nation.”

Kerry pointed to two key provisions in the agreement that he says can make a difference over past, failed cease-fires. First, the Assad government will be required to suspend aerial attacks by its helicopters and warplanes on civilian areas. Russia must use its influence to guarantee that, and Lavrov said the Syrian government was on board.

Second, the U.S. agreed to pressure “moderate” rebel groups opposed to the Syrian government to fully distance themselves from the Front for the Conquest of Syria, formerly known as Al Nusra Front, which the U.S. considers Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. But that will be extremely difficult.

The front’s militiamen work so closely with several of the U.S.-supported rebel groups that they are, as Kerry put it, “marbleized.” They are among some of the toughest fighters in Syria and are widely regarded as the force that was able to partially break the government’s siege on Aleppo.

Under the plan, “a cessation of hostilities” is set to take effect at nightfall Monday, which is also the start of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. If the cease-fire is “genuine” and verifiable, Kerry said, U.S.-Russian military cooperation will begin. That would include the sharing of intelligence ahead of bombing runs and joint selection of targets.

Critically, neither Kerry nor Lavrov announced the sort of robust, verification protocols that most experts said would be essential. Nor did the diplomats announce any punishment for violating the cease-fire, part of what caused an earlier such agreement in February to break down within weeks.

“With no kind of monitoring mechanism, it will be hard to get Russia and the U.S. to agree on who violated. That was the problem in February, in March, in April,” said Robert S. Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria and now a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Until the combatants and their leaders decide there is more for them in peace than in fighting, this is not sustainable.”

U.S. officials, skeptical of both Russia and Syria’s intentions, had wanted a longer period of calm than just one week but evidently relented. Kerry also agreed to move the Front for the Conquest of Syria higher on the list of targets, insisting that was not a concession because it is a dangerous extremist group.

Assad has repeatedly used talks and truces to play for time, according to aid workers, diplomats and military analysts.

His ostensible acceptance of the cease-fire in February, coupled with Russia’s entry into the war a year ago, helped government forces gain the upper hand in the five-year war that has killed at least half a million people and turned millions more into homeless refugees.

They bombed hospitals and used chemical weapons with impunity, medical personnel and human rights activists say.

If Syria’s intentions cannot be trusted, neither can the Russians, some Obama administration officials contend. Kerry encountered stiff resistance to new cooperation with Russia from Defense Department and intelligence officials.

Just three days ago, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter delivered a speech in London that was highly critical of Russia’s “coercion and aggression.” He said Russia’s territorial belligerence and its “unprofessional behavior in the air, in space and in cyberspace” made it an unreliable partner.

After the agreement was announced in Geneva, the Pentagon remained cautious. Commitments by the Russian and Syrian governments to abide by a sustained cease-fire “must be fully met before any potential military cooperation can occur,” department spokesman Peter Cook said. “We will be watching closely the implementation of this understanding in the days ahead.”

Privately, senior U.S. defense officials said they were doubtful about the utility of any deal with the Russian military.

“Of course, I’m pessimistic. I mean, they’re Russians. How could we trust them?” said one U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

Since the beginning of Russian military involvement in the Syrian conflict a year ago, the Kremlin has angled to collaborate with the United States so they can share intelligence and targeting information.

Days after Moscow first launched airstrikes in Syria last September, Russian officials began pressing for an agreement to ensure the two countries’ pilots would not mistakenly run into — or fire upon — each other as they conduct daily bombing runs over Syria.

In October, the Pentagon settled on establishing an emergency communications line, which is used to avoid close calls in crowded airspace.

The two nations also hold occasional videoconferences, even after the Russians secretly recorded a session and used it as propaganda on state-run media.

Russia has used its role in Syria to assert a more prominent role in the Middle East and to show off some of its military might, even launching bombing runs over Syria from a base in Iran.

Faysal Itani, a Lebanese-born risk analyst and scholar, said the U.S.-Russia deal “overwhelmingly” favors the Syrian government because it won’t be punished for any violations. If rebel groups distance themselves from the Front for the Conquest of Syria, however, they will be “losing a capability without compensation” and freeing up government resources.

“It’s a swing in the balance of power in favor of the regime,” said Itani, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

On the battlefield Saturday, there was even more reason for skepticism.

Hours after the agreement was announced, Syrian or Russian warplanes attacked a marketplace in Idlib, killing at least 25 civilians, and civilian targets in Aleppo, killing 18, according to medical personnel. Opposition groups put the tolls higher.

Assad “will try to kill as many as possible before the claimed cease-fire,” Abdullah Alhambo, an Aleppo doctor, told a group of reporters via the Internet. “There will be a lot of shelling and bombing of civilians.”

Syrian state TV said insurgents shelled government-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, killing at least one person. The channel also reported shelling by Islamic State in Dair Alzour that killed nine people.

Col. Hassan Hamadi, commander of the northern division of the moderate Free Syrian Army rebel faction, said he didn’t think this truce would be different from previous ones. “The regime will not commit to it,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

The High Negotiations Committee, a Saudi Arabian-backed body seen as the main representative of the opposition, said Saturday that it would examine the plan’s details and consult with political and military leaders.

Other critical omissions include Iran, which is not mentioned in the agreement and which backs both Assad and pro-government militias operating in the country.

It also remains to be seen how U.S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both highly suspicious of Iran’s intentions in the region, will react.

Turkish forces recently moved into Syria, ostensibly to battle Islamic State militants responsible for a string of deadly attacks in Turkey — but also seizing the moment to hit U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters whom it views as an extension of a group fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.

Special correspondents Nabih Bulos in Beirut and Roy Gutman in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

william.hennigan@latimes.com

For more on global affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson and @wjhenn on Twitter

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