Russia’s top diplomat said Friday he was considering “calling it a day” on talks with the United States to forge a cease-fire in Syria, expressing frustration with what he described as an hours-long wait for an agreement. In Washington, US national security leaders were still thinking the deal over, American officials said.
After a day of negotiations in Geneva, designed to hash out an end to more than five years of warfare between Syria’s Russian-backed government and US-supported rebels, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed Washington for the impasse. He suggested putting the talks off for several days while holding out hope for an answer before the end of the American workday Friday.
“We are thinking of calling it a day and meeting next week,” Lavrov said at a plush hotel in Geneva, where he met with Kerry on-and-off for several hours. In a clear attempt to pressure the US into greater urgency, Lavrov joked that “it takes five hours for our friends to check with Washington.” He offered sympathies to the large crowd of reporters gathered around him.
Lavrov could later be seen milling about outside a hotel ballroom with aides and the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, all waiting for a joint news conference planned with Kerry. Twin podiums backed by American and Russian flags stood upon the dais.
Shortly before midnight, Lavrov appeared with several boxes of pizza, saying: “This is from the US delegation.” A few minutes later he returned with two bottles of vodka, adding: “This is from the Russian delegation.” A senior Obama administration official confirmed the US was locked in internal discussions.
Kerry was holding talks with officials in Washington about the proposals, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name and demanded anonymity. Another official said Kerry and Obama’s national security team were weighing their response.
Neither official specified the sticking points, but the administration has been divided over the peace plan, which hinges on a US-Russian military partnership to target the Islamic State and al-Qaida in Syria. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and National Intelligence Director James Clapper have both publicly expressed misgivings.
The new alliance of sorts would start if Russia halts offensives by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the US can persuade the ‘moderate’ rebels to break ranks with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s local affiliate, and other extremist groups.
The Geneva negotiating session, which threatened to extend into Saturday, underscored the complexity of a conflict that includes myriad militant groups, shifting alliances and the rival interests of the US and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Turkey and the Kurds.
Neither the US nor Russia, which have spearheaded diplomatic efforts, has been able to deliver their end of the bargain. And the task may now be more difficult as fighting rages around the divided city of Aleppo, Syria’s most populous and the new focus of a war that has killed as many as 500,000 people.
Assad’s government appeared to tighten its siege of the former Syrian commercial hub in the last several days, seizing several key transit points. Forty days of fighting in Aleppo has killed nearly 700 civilians, including 160 children, according to a Syrian human rights group. Volunteer first responders said they pulled the bodies of nine people, including four children, from rubble following air raids Friday on a rebel-held area.
Even before Friday’s negotiations began, senior US officials sought to tamp down expectations of an imminent deal. The cautious assessment followed talk for days from other US officials that Kerry wouldn’t travel to Geneva for another round of diplomacy with Lavrov unless an agreement was clearly at hand.
Aleppo was to be a large part of the day’s discussions, the officials said, along with the technical details of a cease-fire that define everything from how far back from demilitarized areas combatants would have to stay, to the types of weapons they would need to withdraw from front lines. The officials, who briefed reporters traveling on Kerry’s plane, were not authorized to discuss the developments publicly and demanded anonymity.
Since Aug. 26, Kerry and Lavrov have now met twice each in Geneva and in China on the sidelines of a global economic summit. They’ve held a flurry of phone calls in recent days. Both governments had said they were close to a package that would go beyond several previous truces between the Syrian government and armed opposition _ all of which failed to hold. For Kerry, securing a sustainable peace in Syria has become his biggest objective as America’s top diplomat since last summer’s Iran nuclear deal.
In addition to those killed, Syria’s conflict has chased millions of people from their homes, contributing to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. Amid the chaos of fighting between Syria’s government and rebels, the Islamic State group has emerged as a global terror threat.