Syria cease-fire a ‘first step,’ State Department says

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The cease-fire agreement in southwest Syria between the United States, Russia and Jordan is “an interim step” toward a longer cease-fire across the country, a U.S. official told reporters Friday.

The agreement was reached in Jordan’s capitol, Amman, after months of discussions between the three countries.

“This is an important step, but it is a first step to what we envisioned to be a more complex and robust cease-fire arrangement and de-escalation arrangement with Syria, certainly more complex than ones we have tried in the past,” a senior State Department official who is involved in the negotiations said on a media call.

The cease-fire will begin Sunday at noon Damascus time, with follow-up talks to take place in Kazakhstan to finalize the agreement in other zones. 

“There’s a lot of discussions ahead of us still … including how to monitor the cease fire, the rules that would govern the southwest de-escalation area. All of this will be the subject of ongoing talks,” the official added.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the ceasefire earlier Friday prior to President Trump’s first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two are in Hamburg, Germany for the Group of 20 summit.

Tillerson called the agreement the “first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.”

The senior official said the timing of the announcement was not planned for the international visit, chalking it up to “good timing.”

The U.S. and Russia have been on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, with Russia backing President Bashar Assad’s regime and the U.S. supporting rebel groups seeking to oust him.

The U.S. and Russia have brokered temporary cease-fires in Syria’s years-long civil war in the past, including one reached in September under former President Barack Obama.

This most recent cease-fire is an attempt to lock in a relatively quiet south Syria and to “create a better environment to discuss broader and more comprehensive southwest de-escalation area in greater detail,” the senior official told reporters.

But the official also allowed that specific details of monitoring the ceasefire “is extraordinarily complex,” and the U.S. hopes to resolve several details in the next couple of days. 

The United States now must decide on a potential deployment of monitoring forces to the area  — “something we’re close to an understanding on, but we’re not in a position to announce any detail on that yet,” he said.

“At the end of the day, this is Syria. It’s a very complicated battle space and there are a lot of spoilers on the ground,” the official said.

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