MUNICH — Within hours after a late-night deal was forged here to stop Syria’s four-year civil war, reality and the fine print began to sink in.
The deadline to stop bombing is a week away, and Russia retains the right to continue its attacks against groups it deems “terrorists.” Along the Turkey-Syria border, where tens of thousands of Syrian civilians have been marooned since fleeing the bombs that continued to fall Friday, refugees were skeptical of deliverance.
Some Washington think tanks described the deal as a victory for Russia, enabling it to consolidate the territorial gains its bombing campaign has won President Bashar al-Assad in recent weeks.
Opposition political representatives, who last week refused to enter negotiations with the government until relief began to flow, said they would wait and see. An international task force, meeting in Geneva to organize aid operations, adjourned without announcing anything. Humanitarian organizations voiced despair at the delay.
A senior Obama administration official here said it was “worth pointing out” that many other conflicts had required multiple tries at a cease-fire before succeeding, recalling that it took “anywhere from eight to 10, depending on who’s counting,” to make an agreement stick during the 1990s Balkans conflict.
“We expect it will not be smooth, and it will not be clean, almost certainly,” the official said. But the “bottom line is we’re putting a premium on stopping the violence,” and for the first time, “we actually have a date, a period of one week.”
Within that week, a task force headed by the United States and Russia is to determine geographic and other limits on Russian air attacks that will still be allowed against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Those forces have been operating in proximity to or together with opposition groups backed by the United States and its partners.
In an interview late Friday with Orient TV, a pro-opposition, Dubai-based Syrian satellite station, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was asked what it would mean “when Russia continues to call all of this moderate opposition or any opposition for the Assad regime terrorists.”
“Well, that’s unacceptable,” Kerry said. “We will work with the Russians . . . to make it very, very clear where there is legitimate opposition and where you have terrorists. And the Russians need to be more discriminating about where they are bombing and where they are engaging, and we hope that they will be.”
The task force, the senior official said, will determine “what exactly is permitted and what isn’t, how monitoring will work, how remedies will work for perceived violation,” and what mechanism will be established to oversee what the agreement calls a “cessation of hostilities.”
While the details are being worked out, administration officials who traveled to Munich with Kerry struggled to explain the difference between a cessation and a cease-fire.
While the “concepts are virtually identical,” said the senior official, the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition preferred the longer version.
“In their mind, cease-fire means the formal end of the conflict. . . . We’re obviously not there yet,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules laid down by the State Department.
According to diplomats who participated in Thursday’s nine-hour negotiation among 17 governments over the deal, the rebels and those who arm them wanted to avoid a legal framework in which weapons shipments and training would stop, potentially leaving them at a disadvantage if the “cessation” failed.
U.S. officials said those programs would continue for the foreseeable future.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a news conference with Kerry after the agreement was completed early Friday, said that it also outlines a “qualitatively new change” in the “military dimension of the Syrian crisis.” Kerry was quick to note that there had been “no change” in U.S. policy of refusing to cooperate with Russia, even in joint attacks against the Islamic State.
“We don’t want to get ahead of the process going to be worked out through these task forces,” the senior administration official said. “Absent progress” on a civil war cease-fire and humanitarian access, the official said, “we’re not going to see a significant advance on anything else.”
The Syria negotiations took place on the margins of the annual Munich Security Conference, where senior officials and experts from around the world come to discuss major national security issues of the day. This year, nearly all the talk has been about the Islamic State, terrorism and Syria.
In one session Friday, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen provided some clarification on a NATO maritime operation agreed in Brussels this week to monitor and disrupt smuggling operations that have carried hundreds of thousands of migrants, most of them fleeing Syria, across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.
“It is clear that we only do monitoring, reconnaissance and surveillance,” von der Leyen said. Emergency aid will be provided for boats that are “in trouble,” she said, and those who are intercepted would be “brought back to Turkey.”