World powers on Friday agreed to a plan for a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria, to begin next week, which would allow humanitarian aid to reach besieged civilians but would not stop military action against extremist groups in the region.
If approved, the deal between the 17 countries comprising the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) would mark the first diplomatic breakthrough in the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more since it began in 2011. The cessation is set to commence if it is granted "confirmation by the Syrian government and opposition, following appropriate consultations in Syria," the United Nations said on Thursday.
However, a cessation of hostilities does not provide the same guarantees as a formal ceasefire, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry admitted the deal amounted to "commitments on paper" only.
The cessation also allows for continued airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Al-Qaeda affiliate group Nusra Front, a provision of the deal that Syrian civilian advocates called "absurd."
Sustained delivery of humanitarian aid "will begin this week, first to the areas where it is most urgently needed... and then to all the people in need throughout the country, particularly in the besieged and hard to reach areas," said Kerry, who announced the deal after extended talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
As the Guardian pointed out on Friday, the deal is predicated on trust between all sides in the conflict—and trust is in short supply. Middle East editor Ian Black writes:
Not only is a cessation of hostilities less solid than a formal ceasefire, there is also no provision for monitoring or enforcement.
[...] Mainstream rebel groups fear that, whatever nomenclature is used, a commitment to end violence is being 'de-linked' from the negotiations they insist are necessary to bring about a political transition and, crucially, to remove Assad.
The next week will give new perspective on how to proceed with ongoing peace negotiations, diplomats and opposition leaders said on Friday.
"If we see action and implementation on the ground, we will be soon in Geneva," said Salim al-Muslat, an opposition spokesperson.
Meanwhile, human rights organizations said they were eager to start sending in humanitarian aid to the areas where it is urgently needed.
"We have high hopes that the parties in the International Syria Support Group, including Russia and the United States, will do everything they can to push for humanitarian access to civilians in need inside Syria," said Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council. "This could be the breakthrough we have been waiting for to get full access to desperate civilians inside Syria. But it requires that all those with influence on all sides of the conflict are putting pressure the parties."
The UN said the humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached "grotesque" proportions.
"The peace talks in Geneva must be resumed as early as possible," said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. "It is unconscionable that the various parties cannot even manage to sit around the table, when, because of their actions, more than a quarter of a million people have died, and the rest of the population is suffering to such a degree. A lasting peaceful resolution of this horrific war must be built on a solid foundation of human rights."