Surprise progress in Syria

In this Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 file photo, smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria. Aleppo was one of the last cities in Syria to join the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s government which began in 2011. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)

“Meeting jaw to jaw is always better than war,” Winston Churchill once declared. It is an appealing principle that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have followed as the Syrian civil war has continued to drag on with no apparent end in sight.

And that effort may have finally borne fruit in practice as Secretary Kerry announced a breakthrough in the talks that could lead to a cease fire and provisions of humanitarian aid to besieged areas.

Last week, Secretary Kerry correctly blamed Russia for the breakdown of Syrian peace talks that had just begun — negotiations that the U.S. had worked hard to convene under United Nations auspices. And though Mr. Kerry met with representatives of more than a dozen other nations in Munich on Thursday in an effort to revive the talks, the prospects for success initially appeared dim.

Recent Russian air strikes have helped the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regain lost ground and threaten the rebel-held city of Aleppo. Mr. Putin has sought to perpetuate the rule of Assad despite demands from the rebels and their backers in Turkey and Saudi Arabia that there can be no peace until he steps down.

With the strong backing of Russia and Iran, Mr. Assad now seems closer to winning a civil war that has already caused an estimated 250,000 deaths, mostly civilians, and displaced 11 million people, including nearly 5 million who have fled Syria for refuge in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Europe.

The Syrian peace talks began in January but broke down when rebel groups reasonably insisted that the pro-Assad forces agree to the requirements of a December U.N. Security Council Resolution that called for a cease-fire and humanitarian aid as well as talks. Secretary Kerry supported that logical condition last week, adding that “Russia has a responsibility, as do all parties, to live up to it.”

Kerry recently spoke at a London meeting of nations that pledged $10 billion in additional humanitarian aid to Syria. The New York Times reports that nearly 200,000 people in Syria are being denied food and other assistance by combatants, mostly by the Assad forces. Humanitarian aid needs are likely to exceed the resources of even the latest pledges.

“Ultimately the end of this conflict will only come when the parties agree on a plan for a political transition,” he said early Friday.

“We have no illusions about how difficult that is.”

Nevertheless, Friday’s breakthrough is an essential step toward that end.