PARIS — Russia said late Thursday that the Syrian military has suspended its combat operations in eastern Aleppo to allow civilians to leave the city and that it had reached agreement with the United States to negotiate the safe departure of rebel fighters.
A senior U.S. State Department official here traveling with Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that neither of those assertions could yet be confirmed but that Kerry was in contact with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
There were conflicting reports from inside Aleppo, where some residents reported a sudden quiet, but others said neighborhoods were still under fire. On Wednesday, as many as 150 elderly residents of Aleppo’s Old City were evacuated by the government in a joint operation with the International Red Cross.
Lavrov, speaking to Russian journalists in Hamburg, said a much bigger evacuation was underway. “Yet another and the biggest [operation] so far . . . to evacuate the civilians willing to leave the place is underway there,” he said, according to Russia’s state-owned Tass news agency. “There are some 8,000 people in the column. That’s a huge operation, and the withdrawal route is five kilometers long.”
Kerry and Lavrov met twice Thursday morning in Hamburg, where they were attending an international conference. Kerry left at midday for Paris, and the two spoke again by telephone in the afternoon, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the diplomatic contacts.
The White House, which has long been skeptical of Moscow’s sincerity in its discussions on Syria, reacted guardedly. “Our approach to this situation from the beginning has been to listen carefully to what the Russians say but scrutinize their actions,” press secretary Josh Earnest said.
Last summer, the United States suspended military and diplomatic “expert” talks with Russia in Geneva over a possible cease-fire in Syria when the Syrian government’s siege of eastern Aleppo began, aided by Russian air attacks. A ferocious government ground offensive in the past few weeks, with hundreds of reported civilian deaths, has retaken all but about a quarter of the territory the opposition once held in the city. As many as 200,000 civilians, and several thousand rebels, are said to remain there.
Lavrov said that he and Kerry had reached agreement to restart the Geneva talks on Saturday to determine “the ways and methods of a final settlement of the eastern Aleppo problem through the departure of all militants and those civilian residents, who will wish to do so, from there,” the Russian news agency Interfax reported from Hamburg.
The State Department official said the resumption of expert talks had been “discussed” but had not been finalized as of late Thursday.
The immediate Kerry-Lavrov discussions are about evacuating Aleppo and “determining the timing, the safety and where [opposition fighters and civilians] are going to go,” the State Department official said. France will host a meeting here Saturday morning of the United States and other governments in Europe and the region of the conflict to discuss the process.
The hope is that talks in Geneva will move quickly to a Syria-wide cease-fire that will allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands in besieged communities across the western third of the country, and to restart political talks between the opposition and the government of President Bashar al-Assad over a political transition.
Given that more than a year of start-and-stop negotiations have failed to halt the carnage in Syria, optimism was tempered. “If that occurs, we obviously would welcome that development,” Earnest said. “It won’t be some sort of accident or coincidence. . . . It will be the product and the result of skilled, principled, tough, tenacious diplomacy, and much of the credit will go to Secretary Kerry.”
“But we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Louisa Loveluck in Beirut contributed to this report.