U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva Sunday in an urgent bid to revive a U.S.-Russian brokered cease-fire that has all but fallen apart as Syrian government forces intensified their attacks, especially in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, over the last 10 days.
U.S. officials said Kerry’s top priority is to end the violence in Aleppo and return the whole of Syria to a durable cessation of hostilities that will enable the peace process to resume. To achieve that, the top U.S. diplomat has called for Russia’s help to persuade the Assad government to stop the attacks.
“These are critical hours. We look for Russia's cooperation, and we obviously look for the regime to listen to Russia and to respond," Kerry said as he went straight from the Geneva airport into a meeting with Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
“The hope is we can make some progress,” Kerry said at the start of the meeting.
The Syrian military on Friday said it would impose a temporary “regime of calm” in the areas around Damascus and in northwestern Syria’s Latakia province, but the order did not include Aleppo.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said attacks on Saturday continued to take a heavy toll on civilians in the city, where activists say nearly 250 people have been killed in the past 10 days.
On Sunday, the group said 859 civilians have been among the 3,116 people documented killed in the conflict during the month of April. It said 410 of those died in raids by Syrian and Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships.
Reports from Syria said fighting appeared to subside in much of the country Sunday.
Kerry is pushing for Syrian forces to stop their attacks on Aleppo altogether, in keeping with the terms of the cease-fire.
In telephone calls to U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and the leader of the Syrian Opposition High Negotiations Committee, Riyad Hijab, Kerry said the cease-fire must include Aleppo.
The Assad government has sought to justify its attacks on the city, saying they target rebels of the terrorist al-Nusra front who have been hitting government-controlled areas with rocket and artillery fire.
U.S. officials dismiss the Assad government’s claims as false, saying the attacks have predominantly targeted innocent civilians and moderate groups, all in violation of the cease-fire.
In this image made from video and posted online from Validated UGC, a Civil Defense worker carries a child after airstrikes hit Aleppo, Syria, April 28, 2016.
Proximity talks to end the 5-year conflict ground to a halt last week, prompting de Mistura to call for the United States and Russia to intervene.
Russian officials have backed the Syrian military’s claim that the attacks on Aleppo are an anti-terrorist operation.
Kerry said he is outraged by the air strikes, including one Wednesday at a hospital supported by the group Doctors Without Borders, where children and medical staff were among those killed.
“Russia has an urgent responsibility to press the regime in Syria to abide fully by the cessation of hostilities,” Kerry tweeted last week. In a conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry called for Moscow to help contain and reduce the violence.
State Department officials say they are working on “specific initiatives” to de-escalate the fighting and hope to make progress on them soon. Analysts say proposals could include establishing safe zones within Aleppo.
Kerry’s efforts are complicated by the fact that Lavrov is not scheduled to be in Geneva to meet with him.
Russian General Sergei Kuralenko told Russian news agencies that talks are under way to halt the Syrian bombardment of rebel strongholds in Aleppo.
Kerry was due to meet with his Saudi counterpart and de Mistura on Monday before returning to Washington.