HANGZHOU, China — Efforts by the United States and Russia to forge a deal for a cease-fire in Syria and to coordinate their counterterrorism operations there faltered again Sunday, even as a major new Syrian-Russian offensive in the besieged city of Aleppo appeared to undermine key components of the proposed agreement.
After an anticipated news conference did not take place, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that his negotiations here with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov snagged on "a couple of tough issues" — nearly identical to the language he used when the two failed to reach agreement in their last meeting, just over a week ago in Geneva. Officials said they would meet again today.
Kerry and Lavrov are in Hangzhou for a meeting of the Group of 20 economies, also attended by President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In his own news conference, Obama said he was skeptical that Russia and Syria would abide by any agreement but that a long-term solution to Syria's civil war is still urgently needed.
"It is worth trying," he said, because "there are women, children, innocent civilians who can get food and medical supplies to get some relief from the terror of constant bombings." Citing "grave differences," Obama said that "it's premature for us to say there's a clear path forward, but there's the possibility, at least for us, to make some progress."
The administration, which has long been reluctant to intervene directly in the civil war, nonetheless thinks that it is a distraction to what it considers the more important, separate battle against the Islamic State — in both Syria and Iraq — and that it must be resolved.
Kerry, with approval from Obama, traveled to Moscow in mid July to propose an agreement under which the United States would share intelligence and coordinate its bombing of terrorist targets with Russia if Moscow would agree to ground the Syrian air force and stop its own bombing of U.S.-backed opposition forces.
Russia has complained of increasing overlap between the opposition and terrorist groups on the ground, and it said it was up to the United States to separate them before a deal could be struck. U.S. failure to do so has allowed the Russians to claim they are targeting only terrorists of the Front for the Conquest of Syria, an al-Qaida affiliate formerly known as the Nusra Front, and the Islamic State.
In comments to Russian journalists earlier in the day, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov indicated that the separation of forces remains an issue. "There is a great phrase: Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," Ryabkov said. For months, he said, Russia has been asking the Americans for "a real, genuine demarcation between terrorists and the so-called opposition."
But he insisted that the two sides were "close to agreement."