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Thursday, 30 January 2014

Thousands of homes deliberately razed in Syria


Tadamon neighborhood of Damascus in July (top) and September 2012

Mazzeh area of Damascus in February (top) and July 2013
Satellite imagery, witness statements, and video and photographic evidence show that Syrian authorities deliberately and unlawfully demolished thousands of residential buildings in Damascus and Hama in 2012 and 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.  


The 38-page report, “Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions in 2012-2013,” documents seven cases of large-scale demolitions with explosives and bulldozers that violated the laws of war.
The demolitions either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population or caused disproportionate harm to civilians, Human Rights Watch found.

“Wiping entire neighborhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government.” 
The Syrian government, as part of its Geneva-2 negotiations, should make a commitment to immediately end demolitions that violate international law and to compensate and provide alternative housing to the victims, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).  
The seven cases Human Rights Watch documented took place between July 2012 and July 2013 in the following areas: the Masha’ al-Arb’een and Wadi al-Joz neighborhoods in Hama, and the Qaboun, Tadamon, Barzeh, Mazzeh military airport, and Harran Al-‘Awamid neighborhoods in and near Damascus.  

The total building area demolished, based on analysis of the satellite imagery, is at least 145 hectares – an area equivalent to about 200 soccer fields. Many of the demolished buildings were apartment blocks several stories high, some as many as eight. Thousands of families have lost their homes as a result of these demolitions.
All of the affected neighborhoods were widely considered by the authorities and by witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch to be opposition strongholds.  
 
Government officials and pro-government media outlets have claimed that the demolitions were part of urban planning efforts or removal of illegally constructed buildings. However, the demolitions were supervised by military forces and often followed fighting in the areas between government and opposition forces.
As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, there have been no similar demolitions in areas that generally support the government, although many houses in those areas were also allegedly built without the necessary permits. 
These circumstances, as well as witness statements and more candid statements by government officials reported in the media, indicate that the demolitions were related to the armed conflict and either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population, or caused disproportionate harm to civilians in violation of the laws of war.   
One woman who lived near Wadi al-Joz, one of the demolished neighborhoods in Hama, told Human Rights Watch: “After the demolition in Wadi al-Joz, the army came to our neighborhood with loudspeakers. They said that they would destroy our neighborhood like they destroyed Wadi al-Joz and Masha’ al-Arb’een should a single bullet be fired from here.”
Several owners of houses that were demolished contended that contrary to the government’s stated pretext for the demolitions, they had all the necessary permits and documents for their houses. 
Commenting on the demolitions in an interview with an international journalist in October 2012, the governor of the Damascus countryside, Hussein Makhlouf, also explicitly stated that the demolitions were essential to drive out opposition fighters. 
 
Some of the demolitions took place around government military or strategic sites that opposition forces had attacked. While the authorities might have been justified in taking some targeted measures to protect these military or strategic locations, the destruction of hundreds of residential buildings, in some cases kilometers away, appears to have been disproportionate and to have violated international law.     
 

Local residents told Human Rights Watch government forces gave little or no warning of the demolitions, making it impossible for them to remove most of their belongings. Owners interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said they had received no compensation. 

One local restaurant owner from the Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus told Human Rights Watch security forces arrived one morning unannounced with bulldozers and ordered him to leave the premises: “When I asked why, the soldier said ‘no more questions’ or else I would be detained.” 
 
He said they denied permission to remove anything from the restaurant and forced him to leave on foot, leaving his motorcycle behind.
“As I was walking I looked back and I saw the bulldozer demolishing my shop,” he said. “The shop was opened by my grandfather many years ago. I personally managed the restaurant for eight years. Before my eyes, all of my family’s hard work was destroyed in one second.”

The report is based on detailed analysis of 15 “very-high resolution” commercial satellite images and interviews with 16 witnesses to the demolitions and owners whose houses were demolished.
In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed media reports, government decrees, and videos of the destruction and its aftermath posted on YouTube. 


“No one should be fooled by the government’s claim that it is undertaking urban planning in the middle of a bloody conflict,” Solvang said. “This was collective punishment of communities suspected of supporting the rebellion. The UN Security Council should, with an ICC referral, send a clear message that cover-ups and government impunity won’t stand in the way of justice for victims.” 

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

55,000 digital images of 11,000 Assad torture victims

By Ian Black, Middle East editor

Report photo
Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the "systematic killing" of about 11,000 detainees, according to three eminent international lawyers.

The three, former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, examined thousands of Syrian government photographs and files recording deaths in the custody of regime security forces from March 2011 to last August.

Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.

The UN and independent human rights groups have documented abuses by both Bashar al-Assad's government and rebels, but experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis.

The three lawyers interviewed the source, a military policeman who worked secretly with a Syrian opposition group and later defected and fled the country. In three sessions in the last 10 days they found him credible and truthful and his account "most compelling".

They put all evidence under rigorous scrutiny, says their report, which has been obtained by the Guardian and CNN.

The authors are:

-- Sir Desmond de Silva QC, former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone

-- Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, and

-- Professor David Crane, who indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court.

The defector, who for security reasons is identified only as Caesar, was a photographer with the Syrian military police. He smuggled the images out of the country on memory sticks to a contact in the Syrian National Movement, which is supported by the Gulf state of Qatar. Qatar, which has financed and armed rebel groups, has called for the overthrow of Assad and demanded his prosecution.

The 31-page report, which was commissioned by a leading firm of London solicitors acting for Qatar, is being made available to the UN, governments and human rights groups. Its publication appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week's UN-organized Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government.

Caesar told the investigators his job was "taking pictures of killed detainees". He did not claim to have witnessed executions or torture. But he did describe a highly bureaucratic system.

"The procedure was that when detainees were killed at their places of detention their bodies would be taken to a military hospital to which he would be sent with a doctor and a member of the judiciary, Caesar's function being to photograph the corpses… There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse," the report says.

"The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold. First to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body, thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out."

Families were told that the cause of death was either a "heart attack" or "breathing problems", it added. "The procedure for documentation was that when a detainee was killed each body was given a reference number which related to that branch of the security service responsible for his detention and death.

"When the corpse was taken to the military hospital it was given a further number so as to document, falsely, that death had occurred in the hospital. Once the bodies were photographed, they were taken for burial in a rural area."

Three experienced forensic science experts examined and authenticated samples of 55,000 digital images, comprising about 11,000 victims. "Overall there was evidence that a significant number of the deceased were emaciated and a significant minority had been bound and/or beaten with rod-like objects," the report says.

"In only a minority of the cases … could a convincing injury that would account for death be seen, but any fatal injury to the back of the body would not be represented in the images …

"The forensics team make clear that there are many ways in which an individual may be killed with minimal or even absent external evidence of the mechanism."

The inquiry team said it was satisfied there was "clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government. It would support findings of crimes against humanity and could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime."

De Silva told the Guardian the evidence "documented industrial-scale killing". He added: "This is a smoking gun of a kind we didn't have before. It makes a very strong case indeed."

Calls for Assad or others to face justice at the international criminal court in The Hague have foundered on the problems that Syria is not a member of the court, and that the required referral by the UN Security Council might not be supported by the US and UK or would be blocked by Russia, Syria's close ally.

Nice said: "It would not necessarily be possible to track back with any degree of certainty to the head of state. Ultimately, in any war crimes trial you can imagine a prosecutor arguing that the overall quantity of evidence meant that the pattern of behavior would have been approved at a high level.

"But whether you can go beyond that and say it must be head of state-approved is rather more difficult. But 'widespread and systematic' does betoken government control."

Crane said: "Now we have direct evidence of what was happening to people who had disappeared. This is the first provable, direct evidence of what has happened to at least 11,000 human beings who have been tortured and executed and apparently disposed of.

"This is amazing. This is the type of evidence a prosecutor looks for and hopes for. We have pictures, with numbers that marry up with papers with identical numbers – official government documents. We have the person who took those pictures. That's beyond-reasonable-doubt-type evidence."

A US administration official told the Guardian on Monday: "We stand with the rest of the world in horror at these images which have come to light. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the actions of the regime and call on it to adhere to international obligations with respect to the treatment of prisoners.

"We have long spoken out about mistreatment and deteriorating prison conditions in Syria. These latest reports, and the photographs that support them, demonstrate just how far the regime is willing to go to not only deny freedom and dignity to the Syrian people, but to inflict significant emotional and physical pain in the process. To be sure, these reports suggest widespread and apparently systematic violations of international humanitarian law.

"The regime has the ability to improve the atmosphere for negotiations in Geneva by making progress in several areas. However, this latest report of horrific and inhumane prison conditions/actions further underscores that if anything, it is tarnishing the environment for the talks.

"As we have for over two years, and again today, we call on the Syrian government to grant immediate and unfettered access to all their detention facilities by international documentation bodies, including the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

"We have long said that those responsible for atrocities in Syria must be held accountable for their gross violations of human rights. The United States continues to support efforts to promote accountability and transitional justice, and we call on the international community to do the same."

William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, said: "This report offers further evidence of the systematic violence and brutality being visited upon the people of Syria by the Assad regime. We will continue to press for action on all human rights violations in Syria, and for accountability for those who perpetrate them."

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch said his organization had not had the opportunity to authenticate the images. But he added: "We have documented repeatedly how Syria's security services regularly torture – sometimes to death – detainees in their custody.


"These photos – if authentic – suggest that we may have only scratched the surface of the horrific extent of torture in Syria's notorious dungeons. There is only one way to get to the bottom of this and that is for the negotiating parties at Geneva II to grant unhindered access to Syria's detention facilities to independent monitors."

Saturday, 18 January 2014

UPDATE: Opposition votes to join Geneva-2


Syria's political opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has agreed to attend next week's Geneva-2 peace talks, to be held in the Swiss resort of Montreux.
The SNC’s 121-member general assembly took the decision at a meeting in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
The aim of the talks is to start the process of setting up a “transitional governing body that would exercise full executive powers” to end the three-year Syria war.
Of the 75 delegates who voted, 58 were in favor, 14 were against, one abstained and two others did not vote.
The remaining 46 members of the SNC general assembly boycotted the session altogether.

Syrian opposition coalition likely to join Geneva-2


Kerry: “We’re not going to be fooled by Assad”
The Syrian National Coalition's logo
“Chances are the Syrian National Coalition will decide to join the Geneva-2 peace talks,” proclaims a front-page headline in the authoritative Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat this morning.
Pan-Arab al-Hayat, another Saudi-owned daily, talks of an American-Russian understanding that the priority at Geneva-2 would be “to set up a transitional governing body that would exercise full executive powers and supervise the armed forces and security services.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hinted at this yesterday at his Joint Press Availability at the State Department’s Ben Franklin Room with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade.
SPOKESPERSON JEN PSAKI: The first question will be from Michael Gordon of The New York Times.
QUESTION: A question for Secretary Kerry. Sir, after you became Secretary of State, you made the point repeatedly that it was important to change Bashar al-Assad’s calculation in order to achieve a political solution at Geneva II. Now almost a year later, it’s clear that the Assad regime believes its position is stronger than ever. In his letter to the United Nations, the Syria foreign minister, who will be leading the delegation to Geneva-2, suggests that the purpose of going to Geneva is to fight terrorism, not discuss a political transition. In fact, he says some points in the invitation the Syrian Government received from the UN are “in conflict with the legal and political position of the state of Syria.”
Sir, my question is: How can you expect to make progress toward a political transition at Geneva-2 if the Assad government does not even accept the purpose of the conference, which is what its own letter suggests. Have you been in contact with the Syrian Government over the past 24 hours to obtain an assurance that it accepts the purpose of the meeting? And doesn’t the Syrian foreign minister’s letter mean that more pressure needs to be brought to bear on the Assad government in order to make political headway? Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much, Michael. Yesterday I addressed directly the revisionism of the Syrian regime in its effort to try to divert the purpose, which will not be successful. More than 30 nations are going to assemble, all of whom, thus far, and if there are more, will be and must be committed to the Geneva-1 communiqué. Now, you were with me in Paris the other day when Foreign Minister Lavrov stood up and reiterated that the purpose of this conference is the implementation of the Geneva-1 communiqué.
Nobody would have believed that Assad would have given up his chemical weapons. But he did. And the reason he did is that his patrons came to understand that he had to. And I believe, as we begin to get to Geneva, and begin to get into this process, that it will become clear that there is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks he’s going to be part of that future. It’s not going to happen. The people who are the opponents of this regime will never, ever stop. There will be a low-grade insurgency at least, and worse, potentially even a civil war if it continues, because they will not stop.
Now we also are not out of options with respect to what we may be able to do to increase the pressure and further change the calculation. And I think we’ve made that clear to the Russian foreign minister and others, and nor are other players short of an ability to be able to have an impact here.
So I think they can bluster, they can protest, they can put out distortions. The bottom line is: We are going to Geneva to implement Geneva-1. And if Assad doesn’t do that, he will invite greater response in various ways from various people over a period of time. So I’m not particularly surprised that he is trying to divert this. He’s been doing this for months, trying to make himself the protector of Syria against extremists, when he himself has even been funding some of those extremists – even purposely ceding some territory to them in order to make them more of a problem so he can make the argument that he is somehow the protector against them. Nobody is going to be fooled. We’re not going to be fooled by this process.
So Foreign Minister Lavrov has stated: They are supporting the Geneva-1 communiqué and the government has to come and negotiate around the communiqué. And since Russia is one of the primary benefactors of the Assad regime, we believe the Russians have a high stake in helping to make certain that Assad understands exactly what the parameters of this negotiation are.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Assad tables Aleppo ceasefire and prisoner swap

Moallem and Lavrov after their joint press conference in Moscow today (Reuters)

Within 24 hours of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry slamming Syrian government efforts to change the focus of next week’s Geneva-2 peace talks, Damascus today handed over a plan for an Aleppo ceasefire and readied for a possible prisoner exchange with the opposition.
At the news conference held after his meeting today with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Mansion in Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Damascus is ready to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with opposition forces in the flashpoint city of Aleppo.
A list of rebel prisoners has also been drawn up in preparation for a proposed exchange of prisoners.


“Taking into account the role of the Russian Federation in halting the bloodshed in Syria and our relationship of trust, today I have given Minister Lavrov a ceasefire plan for the city of Aleppo,” Russia Today (RT) quoted Muallem as saying.
He asked Lavrov to coordinate with his contacts in the Syrian opposition in order to ensure the execution of the new plan, adding that if it is successful it could be implemented in other areas of the war-torn country.
“I really hope all sides will keep to the terms of the agreement. If this happens, then we can implement this plan in other cities.”
Addressing the issue of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Muallem said the Syrian government is already working with the UN to deliver aid to “a number of regions.” However, the success of the humanitarian program depends on rebel fighters keeping to their pledge not to open fire on humanitarian convoys, he said.
Refuting claims the Syrian Army is bombing its own citizens, Muallem said such allegations “do not reflect the reality of the current situation.” He laid the blame at the feet of terrorist organizations that are being supported by international players.
“According to the constitution, the Syrian government is obligated to protect its citizens and public institutions in Syria. Terrorists and terror groups are responsible for these destructive acts,” said Muallem, adding: “These groups are growing in number because of outside support from known states.”
Lavrov echoed this opinion, describing as “irresponsible” accusations that Damascus is carrying out strikes on its own citizens. 
“In Syria, civilians are suffering on both sides, but it is totally irresponsible to accuse the government of purposely targeting civilians,” said Lavrov. “To make such accusations, serious proof is required.”
Both foreign ministers said opposition representation is absolutely essential for the success of the Geneva-2 talks, which are set to kick off next Monday. They believe the conference will pave the way for the creation of a transitional government to bring an end to the three-year conflict.
The Syrian National Coalition – the main political opposition umbrella organization – is meeting in Istanbul later today to decide whether it will attend the Geneva talks.
KERRY
In remarks to the press at the State Department’s Briefing Room yesterday, Thursday, Kerry said in part:
I know that many of you have been asking about some of the recent revisionism as to why the international community will be gathering in Montreux next week, so let me make it clear here today.
From the very moment that we announced the goal of holding the Geneva conference on Syria, we all agreed that the purpose was specifically and solely to implement the 2012 Geneva-1 communiqué. That purpose, that sole purpose, could not have been more clear at the time this was announced and it could not be more clear today. It has been reiterated in international statement after international statement that the parties have signed up to, and venue after venue, in resolution after resolution, including most recently in Paris last weekend when both the London 11 and the Russian Federation reaffirmed their commitment to that objective, the implementation of Geneva-1.
So for anyone seeking to rewrite this history or to muddy the waters, let me state one more time what Geneva-2 is about: It is about establishing a process essential to the formation of a transition government body – governing body with full executive powers established by mutual consent. That process – it is the only way to bring about an end to the civil war that has triggered one of the planet’s most severe humanitarian disasters and which has created the seeding grounds for extremism.
The Syrian people need to be able to determine the future of their country. Their voice must be heard. And any names put forward for leadership of Syria’s transition must, according to the terms of Geneva-1 and every one of the reiterations of that being the heart and soul of Geneva-2, those names must be agreed to by both the opposition and the regime. That is the very definition of mutual consent.
This means that any figure that is deemed unacceptable by either side, whether President Assad or a member of the opposition, cannot be a part of the future. The United Nations, the United States, Russia, and all the countries attending know what this conference is about. After all, that was the basis of the UN invitation sent individually to each country, a restatement of the purpose of implementing Geneva-1. And attendance by both sides and the parties can come only with their acceptance of the goals of the conference.
We too are deeply concerned about the rise of extremism. The world needs no reminder that Syria has become the magnet for jihadists and extremists. It is the strongest magnet for terror of any place today. So it defies logic to imagine that those whose brutality created this magnet, how they could ever lead Syria away from extremism and towards a better future is beyond any kind of logic or common sense.
And so on the eve of the Syrian Opposition Coalition general assembly meeting tomorrow (today, Friday) to decide whether to participate in Geneva in the peace conference, the United States, for these reasons, urges a positive vote. We do so knowing that the Geneva peace conference is not the end but rather the beginning, the launch of a process, a process that is the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people and the revolution, and a political solution to this terrible conflict that has taken many, many, many, too many lives.
We will continue to push in the meantime for vital access for humanitarian assistance. I talked yesterday with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Lavrov in an effort to push still harder for access to some areas where the regime played games with the convoys, taking them around a circuitous route instead of directly in the way that the opposition had arranged for and was willing to protect them in. It is important that there be no games played with this process.
We will also continue to fight for ceasefires where we could achieve them, and we will continue to fight for the exchange or release of captive journalists and aid workers and others in order to try to improve the climate for negotiations.
Now, obviously, none of this will be easy. Ending a war and stopping a slaughter never is easy. We believe, though, this is the only road that can lead to the place where the civilized world has joined together in an effort to lead the parties to a better outcome. And to the Syrian people, let me reiterate: The United States and the international community will continue to provide help and support, as we did yesterday in Kuwait, where we pledged $380 million of additional assistance in order to try to relieve the pain and suffering of the refugees.
We will continue to stand with the people of Syria writ large, all the people, in an effort to provide them with the dignity and the new Syria, which they are fighting for. Thank you.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

“Assad will run again… America will go along”


“Assad will run again… America will go along.” That's what renowned Lebanese political analyst and journalist Sami Kleib writes today for Beirut’s daily al-Akhbar, which speaks for Iran, Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah.

The article penned by Kleib, who formerly worked for Aljazeera but is now news director of the pro-Iran Al-Mayadeen TV, features simultaneously this morning on Syria’s online daily Champress as well as on the news portal of Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV.
Better still, Kleib is married to former Aljazeera anchorwoman Luna Shibl, who now serves as media advisor to President Bashar al-Assad.
To Kleib’s mind:
It is almost inevitable that Assad will again run for president come mid-2014. He won’t be standing down, or renewing or extending his term. He links his candidacy to the yearning of the people. He is also convinced renewal of his presidential mandate will happen.
American circles handling Syrian affairs are convinced Assad will run and win. It is consequently imperative to look for a credible way out to justify any likely American u-turn in Geneva or elsewhere, but not instantly.
The Americans tried long and hard to convince Russia and Iran to press Assad to leave office at the end of his current mandate next June. They offered keeping the régime and state institutions unchanged and suggested replacing Assad by an Alawite figure. Moscow and Tehran would have nothing of that.
The same happened when Secretary of State John Kerry told international troubleshooter for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi in the presence of Kerry aide Wendy Sherman, “Try pressuring the Russians and Iranians to advise Assad against running.”
Brahimi replied the first time he broached the subject he found Assad “flexible.” The second time Assad refused to discuss the matter saying the Syrian people decide on this. On his third visit to Damascus, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem advised Brahimi not to raise the matter as a precondition for the meeting. Brahimi did as told.
The Americans’ problem is how to save face after repeating for two years that Assad must step down.
All the above was before the world powers reached an agreement with Iran on her nuclear ambitions, prior to the outrage against the Iranian embassy in Beirut and ahead of the agreement between Baghdad and Washington to shore up Iraqi Premier Nouri al-Maliki in his war against Jihadists and DAESH.
Since all issues revolve around the war on terrorism, the matter is bound to top the Geneva-2 agenda.
Provision 2 of Article 87 in the amended Syrian constitution states: “If the term of the President of the Republic finished and no new president was elected, the Existing President of the Republic continues to assume his duties until the new president is elected.”
This is to say the “Game of Nations” over Assad’s future will remain in full play well past June 2014.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Kerry gets potatoes of peace to Syria talks


Aleppo ceasefire, prisoner swaps and Ghouta aid mulled
Kerry presenting Lavrov with the two Idaho potatoes
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with two potatoes from Idaho before the beginning of their talks at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris.
Kerry said he and Lavrov had spoken to one another several weeks ago and planned to discuss Syria. Then the Secretary of State produced two potatoes from a big cardboard box and gave them to the Russian minister.
The Russian delegation responded later with an ushanka hat, an iconic relic of the Soviet era, complete with a red star, but colored cartoonish pink.
Kerry and Lavrov discussed the possibility of ceasefires in parts of Syria, Kerry said after the talks in Paris.
Lavrov said the two also discussed a possible willingness by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to open aid corridors.
"We talked today about the possibility of trying to encourage a ceasefire. Maybe a localized ceasefire in Aleppo," Kerry told the news conference after the talks with Lavrov, which were joined by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi a little later.
Lavrov said Damascus had indicated it might provide access for humanitarian aid to besieged areas. According to RT, he specifically cited the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, where fighting traps 160,000 people.
"We await similar steps by the opposition," Lavrov said.
The United States is pushing for a series of confidence-building measures, including prisoner exchanges, in the Syria war in advance of Geneva-2, a planned peace conference in Switzerland on January 22.
Prisoner exchanges may be a simpler goal to achieve. Armed opposition forces are preparing lists of Syrian army soldiers and officials in their captivity, Kerry said. A similar preparation is underway in Damascus.
Achieving a total ceasefire would probably be unrealistic under the circumstances, but both the U.S. and Russia are suggesting a localized ceasefire such as in Aleppo, which would serve as a test for the readiness of both sides to curb violence.
Syria’s second largest city Aleppo has been a scene of intensive fighting in the past few weeks.
A third important step would be providing humanitarian access to Syrian regions most affected by the violence, particularly the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta. Lavrov is negotiating such a move with Damascus, Kerry said.
Another important issue discussed by the three negotiators deals with Iran’s participation in the conference. According to Brahimi, an invitation to the Swiss town of Montreux, where the gathering is to take place, has been sent to Tehran.
“Iran’s participation or otherwise is not a matter of ideology; it is a matter of common sense,” the envoy said.
Kerry said the U.S. supports Iran’s participation in the conference, but insists that Tehran endorses the peace roadmap agreed at the June 2012 Syria peace conference in Geneva.
“We hope that in the end the UN Secretary General will invite everyone, who has an impact on the real development of the situation,” Lavrov said.