White House Attempts to Broker Syria Cease-Fire as Time Runs Out

The U.S. and Russia could soon agree on terms for a cease-fire in Syria.

— -- Secretary of State John Kerry is leaving Washington, D.C., tonight for Geneva, where he's scheduled to meet Friday with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, hoping to broker a cease-fire in Syria and expand humanitarian assistance, the State Department announced today.

With about four months left in Barack Obama's final term, the clock is running as his administration again nears a chance to find a resolution to the brutal civil war in Syria — a deal that hinges on the daunting task of persuading warring parties to lay down arms without any political resolution in sight and an unlikely U.S. military alliance with Russia.

That pause in military action would be used to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid to the civilian population and, ideally, coupled with a concerted effort to destroy ISIS, pave the way for political talks on a power-sharing arrangement.

In recent days, the U.S. State Department and Russia have signaled that they are close to the first step of restarting a cessation of hostilities, modeled on the brief cessation that was brokered in February. On Wednesday the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Kerry and Lavrov would soon be meeting in Geneva to finalize a deal. But the State Department did not confirm that meeting until today.

"Bottom line, we’re still pursuing these talks," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday. "[It's] hard to put a confidence level on whether they’ll be successful or not, but they’re worth pursuing, given the stakes."

A cease-fire would call on Russia to halt Assad's airstrikes, and the U.S. would need to persuade moderate opposition fighters to break ranks with more extremist groups. Aside from a general distrust that either side will keep its promises, many of the sticking points center on which groups and locations would continue to be legitimate military targets.

Carter said that only when Russia commits to doing what it originally promised inside Syria, rather than attack U.S.-backed interests, would he be willing to enter into a cooperative military mission.

"There need to be a number of very specific steps that Secretary Kerry is spelling out in order to get the Russians doing everything that they said they were going to do," Carter told BBC Radio. "Then and only then is the United States going to be willing to associate itself with or cooperate with Russia."