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US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov sought on Friday to finalise an agreement on fighting Islamist militants in Syria as the first evacuees left a besieged Damascus suburb under a plan criticised by the UN.
US officials are hoping a deal on combating jihadists in Syria could help lead to an end to fighting between the army and its militia allies on one side and non-jihadist rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
This in turn could pave the way for talks on a political transition to end the five-year Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 400,000 people according to UN figures.
Senior White House officials from the National Security Council (NSC) joined the talks between Kerry and Lavrov at a hotel on Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
While Kerry said this week that technical teams from both sides were close to the end of their discussions, US officials indicated it was too early to say whether an agreement was likely.
“There are still issues that need to be ironed out,” a senior State Department official said.
“We’re hopeful that today could see resolution on at least some of them, and that we can move this plan forward,” the official said, “But we’re mindful of the challenges.”
When Kerry launched the Syrian cooperation talks in July during a visit to Moscow, the proposal involved Washington and Moscow sharing military intelligence to coordinate air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) group and grounding the Syrian air force to stop it from attacking moderate rebel groups.
Kerry believes the plan is the best chance to limit the fighting that is driving thousands of Syrians into exile in Europe and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching tens of thousands more.
Neither Washington nor Moscow has signaled that an agreement is imminent, although progress appears to have been made in one critical battleground: the besieged city of Aleppo, where the UN has been clamouring for a 48-hour ceasefire so humanitarian aid can be shipped into the city.
The three-point plan for Aleppo, which UN officials say now needs the approval of two rebel groups and the Syrian government, would involve road convoys both from Damascus and across the Turkish border through the critical Castello Road artery.
Another mission would go to southern Aleppo to help revive a damaged electric plant that powers crucial pumping stations that supply water for 1.8 million people.
Daraya evacuation begins
The talks take place just days after Syrian rebels backed by Turkish special forces, tanks and warplanes entered Jarablus, one of the IS group’s last strongholds on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Turkish military shelled the Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, south of Jarablus and demanded the YPG retreat beyond the Euphrates River within a week.
The YPG had moved west of the river earlier this month as part of a US-backed operation, now completed, to capture the city of Manbij from the IS group.
Turkey’s stance puts it at odds with Washington, which sees the YPG as a rare reliable ally on the ground in Syria.
Meanwhile, residents and insurgents have begun to leave the besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya where civilians have been trapped since 2012, witnesses said Friday.
Rebels and Syria’s army agreed the plan on Thursday to evacuate all the 4,000 residents and some 700 insurgents from Daraya in the coming days, ending one of the longest stand-offs in the civil war.
But the United Nations was not consulted on the plan and UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and UN humanitarian coordinator Stephen O’Brien voiced deep concern about it on Friday.
Civilians should be evacuated only if their safety could be guaranteed and it was on a voluntary basis, they said.
“It is imperative that people of Daraya are protected in any evacuation that takes place, and that this takes place voluntarily,” de Mistura said in a statement after holding talks with Kerry and Lavrov.