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Major world powers announce 'cessation of hostilities' in Syria in tense press conference

Syria press conferenceScreenshot/YouTubeRussian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura speak at a press conference following a meeting of the International Syria Support Group.

Major world powers taking part in a meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) agreed to implement a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced from Munich on Thursday.

The ISSG agreed that a cessation of hostilities would be more “apt” as it does not carry the same “legal prerogatives” as a ceasefire, Kerry explained.

“A ceasefire, in the minds of many participants, connotes something far more permanent,” Kerry said in a news conference following the group’s meeting. “A ceasefire signals an end of conflict. This plan is distinctly not that — rather, it is a pause that will be dependent on the process going forward.”

Kerry noted that, like a ceasefire, the plan aims to end hostile activities, while acts of self-defence are allowed. He added that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition “need to make their decision this week” about how they wish to proceed with negotiations.

“The international Syria support group took a different step this time from what has happened previously,” Kerry said. “In Vienna and in New York we called for a ceasefire. Today we decided on a process, and a timeframe, and we all agreed to do everything we can to meet that.”

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When asked whether he thought a cessation of hostilities would cement Assad in power — given the recent battlefield gains the regime had made near Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, with the help of Russian airstrikes — Kerry was candid.

“Yes, it is true that the bombing of the last few weeks, and the aggressive actions of the Assad regime — together with forces of other places and countries that have helped them — has made a difference for Assad,” Kerry said.

“But that difference doesn’t end the war,” he added. “It doesn’t mean Assad is safe or secure in the long term. … Our belief is there will never be peace in Syria while President Assad is there. Others think differently.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not take kindly to Kerry’s implication that Russia’s actions on behalf of the Assad regime had been “aggressive.”

“Liberating a city captured by illegal insurgent groups — is that an aggressive move? Well, maybe,” Lavrov said. “But it’s important to have offensives against forces that are occupying your country.”

And when a reporter asked Lavrov to respond to accusations that Russia had been bombing civilian targets in a major offensive to help the regime retake Aleppo, Lavrov insisted that such claims were “purely propaganda.”

“The mainstream media has been trying to divert attention away from the thing that is most important to all of us,” Lavrov said. “And that is the task of preventing ISIS from achieving its goals in Syria.”

He added: “Some countries are trying to bring attention back to regime change in Syria, as if we didn’t have the experiences of Libya and Iraq.”

Russia has criticised the US’ role in toppling the regimes of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The White House, meanwhile, has blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for bombing anyone opposed to the Assad regime, saying the indiscriminate attacks have been instrumental in fuelling recruiting for extremist groups, including ISIS.

The cessation of hostilities in Syria will be implemented with the help of two task forces focused on providing humanitarian aid to besieged cities and creating modalities to end the violence. Sustained delivery of humanitarian aid, in compliance with UN Security Council resolution 2254, will be delivered to besieged cities this week.

The longer-term objective of the cessation of hostilities, Kerry said, is a “durable, long-term ceasefire.”

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