Kerry says Syria truce may not lead to political solution

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing of the State Department's fiscal 2017 budget request. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress on Tuesday that he can’t be sure the cease-fire agreement in Syria will work and lead to a political resolution in the war-ravaged country.

But in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry said that the cease-fire is the best way to try to end the conflict and is the only alternative available to the U.S. and its allies if a political settlement in Syria is the goal.

“I’m not going to vouch for this,” Kerry said. “I’m not going to say this process is sure to work because I don’t know.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she’s concerned Russia won’t honor the truce and it will become a “rope-a-dope deal.”

“It may be,” Kerry said.

But he said that if the cease-fire leads to the flow of humanitarian assistance, if the “guns do silence” and lives are saved, “then that’s a benefit.”

Kerry said if Syrian President Bashar Assad were to step down, the war would be over quickly. “Four words could end this war: I will not run,” Kerry said.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the committee’s chairman, said he has no confidence Russia would abide by the cease-fire agreement. Corker also said Russia is using refugees as a “weapon of war” against Europe. Corker and other Republican senators chided Kerry for the lack of leverage the U.S. has against Russia if Moscow violates the terms of the agreement.

“Russia knows there will no Plan B,” Corker said. But Kerry said it would be a mistake to underestimate President Barack Obama’s potential for taking punitive action against Moscow.

Kerry appeared before the committee a day after the United States and Russia agreed on the new cease-fire for Syria. Nagging questions remain over enforcement of the truce and how violations of the agreement will be handled. The cease-fire is to go into effect Saturday.

Five years of violence in Syria has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced 11 million more from their homes.

The truce will not cover the Islamic State extremist group, the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and any other militias designated as terrorist organizations by the U.N. Security Council. Both the U.S. and Russia are still targeting those groups with airstrikes.

The Syrian government and the main umbrella for Syrian opposition and rebel groups announced Tuesday their conditional acceptance of the cease-fire.

But even if the cease-fire is implemented, the fighting and violence in Syria won’t stop.

Despite the agreement, Russia is almost certain to continue an air campaign that it insists is targeting terrorists. But the U.S. and its partners said Russia is mainly hitting moderate opposition groups and killing civilians.

While IS tries to expand its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and neighboring Iraq, al-Nusra is unlikely to end its effort to overthrow Assad. The Kurds have been fighting IS, even as they face attacks from America’s NATO ally Turkey. And Assad has his own history of broken promises when it comes to military action.

In congressional testimony two weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said Russia’s campaign in Syria “has eclipsed its aggression in the Crimea and Ukraine as the most serious flashpoint in U.S.-Russian relations.”

“Unlike Russia’s obscured hand in Ukraine, its actions in Syria are being played out in daily headlines that report on Russia’s indiscriminate bombing and its support of the Syrian regime in areas where moderate forces are aiming to get out from under the rule of the Assad regime,” Clapper said.

As objectionable as Russia’s involvement in Syria is, the only prospect for peace is through a negotiated cease-fire, humanitarian relief and a serious attempt at a negotiating a political resolution, said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. That approach is “far preferable to our deploying tens of thousands of American troops in an attempt to move the balance of the battlefield back against Assad,” he said.

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Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner

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