The United States and Russia have agreed to collaborate on backing a new cease-fire in southwest Syria, to begin Sunday, according to officials from both countries.
The agreement was reached a week ago but was not announced until after President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first face-to-face meeting Friday in Hamburg, at the Group of 20 summit. It would mark the first collaborative operation between Washington and Moscow during the Trump administration.
Similar efforts, albeit on a much more ambitious scale, failed spectacularly under the Obama administration, as agreed cease-fires quickly fell apart. The United States and Russia are on opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, which began almost six years ago.
“This is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Hamburg with Trump, told reporters after the meeting. “We had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria [where] we can continue to work together,” he said.
A senior State Department official, who was authorized to speak to reporters only on the condition of anonymity, emphasized the deliberately modest scale of the agreement. “We made a conscious decision to focus on one part of the conflict,” the official said, “a more manageable part of a very, very complicated battle space.”
The cease-fire is to take place in and around the southwestern city of Daraa, in a part of Syria where the front lines are more cleanly drawn and have been relatively stabler between Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and U.S.-backed opposition fighters than elsewhere in the country.
At the same time, there is a lower proportion of outside actors involved in the fight in the southwest than in other parts of the complex Syrian battlefield. They include Iranian-backed militias such as Hezbollah fighting on Assad’s behalf and terrorist groups such as the former Jabhat al-Nusra fighting against Assad. Those numbers have been increasing lately in Daraa province, however, providing more impetus to the cease-fire negotiations.
While it has been largely out of the public eye compared with other parts of Syria, the fighting in Daraa has claimed the lives of scores of people. The Syrian air force has been pounding the area with the barrel bombs that brought the rebels to surrender in Aleppo last year. Large parts of rebel-controlled areas have been reduced to rubble.
Russian aircraft also have conducted bombing operations around Daraa in support of Syrian forces.
Daraa province lies along the western end of Syria’s lengthy border with Jordan, which fears a new influx of Syrian refugees. The government in Amman helped negotiate the deal and is one of the signatories, along with Moscow and Washington.
Israel was a behind-the-scenes player. Israeli warplanes have struck Syrian government forces several times in the area in recent months, including three weeks ago in retaliation for what Israel said were 10 “projectiles” that flew across the border into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The cease-fire, if it works, would freeze the fighting in a way that leaves the rebels in control of the Jordanian border and the de facto border with Israel, as well as portions of the surrounding countryside.
After lengthy negotiations over the past several months, the senior official said, the United States, Jordan and Russia last week reached agreement on a line on the map that separates the opposing forces. “At that point, there was a certain logic in implementing it immediately. Then it was incumbent on us to move as quickly as possible, to make arrangements to ensure that it can be durable,” the official said.
While the agreement calls for a robust monitoring component, that will not be in place when the cease-fire is scheduled to begin Sunday at noon Damascus time. The senior official said that talks on monitoring would continue.
Other U.S. officials said there was no intention of using U.S. troops on the ground as monitors or enforcers, although it was unclear who would do the job.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a news conference after the Trump-Putin meeting, said that “at first, security around this de-escalation zone will be ensured by forces and means of Russian military police in coordination with Jordanians and Americans.”
Later, at his own news conference, Tillerson said that “we have a very clear picture of who will provide the security forces. But we have a few more details to work out.” He declined to specify what those forces would be.
The senior official, briefing reporters in Washington, said that “we hope to have that finalized in the next couple of days. Let me leave it at that.”
Israel, however, has said it does not want Russian troops to deploy in the vicinity, according to a report Friday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The senior official said that a successful cease-fire could provide a template for further U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria. “The basis of the whole understanding is that each side uses its influence with those parties on the ground. We and Jordan have good relationships with the principal armed faction in southwest Syria,” which he said was “supportive” of a cease-fire.
For its part, this official and others said, Russia would cease all air operations in the area and prevent Syrian planes from flying — effectively instituting a “no-fly zone.” Russia would be responsible for keeping Assad and allied ground forces within the cease-fire’s parameters, and both sides would be responsible for ensuring the free movement of humanitarian assistance to civilians.
Syrian opposition supporters in Daraa expressed skepticism about the agreement.
“There have been deals and truces before, but the regime forces never committed to any of these deals,” said Iyad al-Rifai, an optician who lives in Daraa. “On the contrary, they always try to take advantage of the truce deals to advance.”
The Syrian government made no immediate comment on the announced agreement.
Liz Sly in Beirut contributed to this report.