Kerry defends Syria ceasefire as Pentagon admits skepticism over deal

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Washington (CNN)Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday defended U.S. efforts to forge a Syria ceasefire with Russia, even as lawmakers questioned the deal and Pentagon officials acknowledged skepticism that it will work.

Kerry was challenged on the ceasefire, set to begin Friday, as he presented the administration’s final budget request for the State Department to Congress a day after President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin finalized the agreement.

Later Tuesday, when CNN asked Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook about Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s confidence that Russia would adhere to the arrangement, he referred to “a certain dose of skepticism” surrounding it.

“He will wait to see whether not they comply with the agreement that they have signed up with,” Cook replied. “I think there’s a certain dose of skepticism, and again, the secretary will be watching like every one else.”

In a Senate hearing, however, Kerry spoke of Russian backing being key to the deal being reached, despite tensions between the two countries over competing military operations in Syria.

Kerry said that without support from Moscow, the ceasefire couldn’t have happened and more than 100 trucks of badly needed humanitarian aid wouldn’t have been delivered this week.

“Without Russia’s cooperation I’m not sure we would have been able to have achieved the agreement we have now or at least get the humanitarian assistance in,” Kerry said.

But lawmakers expressed concern about the ceasefire.

“I just hope it’s not a rope-a-dope deal,” California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer told Kerry, “not that you have another option.”

Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned Russia’s intentions, noting that in Syria it has repeatedly targeted U.S.-backed rebels and “continue to kill the folks that are our friends and allies.”

Kerry admitted that the pact is fragile but argued that it is the only way to end a war that has claimed more than 250,000 lives and displaced millions since it began in March 2011.

If the guns fall silent “and lives are saved, then that’s to the benefit and it doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to have a positive outcome in the political process,” Kerry said. But he stressed that a ceasefire remains “the best way to end the war and it’s the only alternative if we’re going to have a political settlement.”

Kerry also told senators that if attempts to reach a political solution in Syria fail, the administration has another path forward that will become apparent in a month or two.

“There are certainly Plan B options being considered,” said Kerry. “Assad himself is going to have to make some real decisions about the formation of a transitional governance process that’s real.”

Corker flatly dismissed Kerry’s claim, setting off a spirited defense of the President from the top U.S. diplomat.

“I think the secretary is negotiating a situation where there is no Plan B,” Corker told the committee. The process can’t succeed “unless the other side knows there consequences” and that “there won’t be under this president.”

He continued. “Russia knows, that’s what makes it difficult.”

Kerry pushed back.

“It would be a mistake for anybody to calculate that President Obama is going to decide that, if this doesn’t work, there isn’t another set of options,” he said, adding that “anybody who thinks there isn’t impunity” is wrong.

The administration is working hard on other options, Kerry added. “There are plenty of people thinking, ‘Okay, if this doesn’t work, then what?’ “

The agreement reached by Obama and Putin requires all sides to agree by Friday to adhere to the ceasefire, which applies to all groups except ISIS, the al Qaeda off-shoot al Nusra and any other group deemed a terrorist organization by the United Nations.

The Syrian government said today it would end its combat operations, while the opposition has indicated its acceptance will depend on whether the Assad regime ends its sieges and air strikes on civilians.

Kerry added that the agreement offered the best possibility for dealing with the streams of Syrian refugees that have destabilized Europe.

“With all the cynicism and all the doubts that each of us will carry to the table, we have to test it,” Kerry said of the deal. “That will have the most profound effect of all on Europe.”

Kerry said he will meet with members of the International Syria Support Group in Geneva, Switzerland, in the next few days to work on how exactly the ceasefire will work to ensure that “it’s Nusra that’s attacked” and not the moderate opposition.

If it goes well, he said, the result could be “greater cooperation against ISIL and speed the destruction of Daesh,” he said, using two other acronyms for ISIS.

The administration is asking Congress to approve $50.1 billion for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in fiscal year 2017, including $14.9 billion in a special fund that will focus, in part, on destroying ISIS and dealing with the crisis in Syria and Iraq.

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