Syria army, opposition confirm nationwide truce from midnight

Syria agrees to cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey

Syria's army said Thursday it would halt all military operations from midnight, under a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey, with the opposition National Coalition announcing support for the agreement.

Earlier, Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced the deal, saying the Syrian regime and "main forces of the armed opposition" had signed on.

"The general command of the armed forces announces a complete halt to all hostilities on Syrian territory from the zero hour of December 30th," Syria's army said in a statement carried on state television.

It added that the halt excluded combat against the Islamic State group and the former Al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Al-Nusra Front, now rebranded the Fateh al-Sham Front.

Syria's leading opposition National Coalition body, a political entity based in Turkey, confirmed its support for the truce.

"The National Coalition expresses support for the agreement and urges all parties to abide by it," spokesman Ahmed Ramadan told AFP.

He said key rebel groups including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham and Army of Islam factions had signed the ceasefire deal, though there was no immediate confirmation from rebel officials.

The agreement comes after Syria's government recaptured the country's second city Aleppo from rebels, in the worst blow to opposition forces since the war began.

The ceasefire will be the first nationwide halt in fighting since a week-long truce from September 12-19 that collapsed after several incidents of violence.

A previous truce was implemented in February, with both of those deals organised by Russia and the United States.

Today's agreement is the first nationwide ceasefire brokered with the involvement of Turkey, a backer of the Syrian opposition.

Russia is a key supporter of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and began a military intervention in support of his government in September 2015.

Despite backing opposing sides in the conflict, and a souring of relations after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane last year, Ankara and Moscow have worked increasingly closely on Syria.

They jointly brokered a ceasefire for Aleppo this month that allowed the last remaining rebels and civilians in the city's east to leave to opposition territory elsewhere.

More than 310,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with protests against Assad's government.


New Syria cease-fire set to begin at midnight

© MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a reception dedicated to the celebration of the New Year at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 28, 2016.
The major players involved in the long-running Syrian conflict have agreed to a cease-fire set to begin at midnight on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier in the day.

The deal will be guaranteed by Russia and Turkey. It's set to be followed by peace talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and opposition leaders. The Syrian parties would meet in Kazakhstan for the talks, though no date has been set.

Some terror groups are to be excluded from the cease-fire, though, aside from ISIS, it's unclear which -- if any -- that refers to. The head of rebel group Fastaqim told Reuters the truce only excluded ISIS. The Syrian army earlier said the agreement would exclude ISIS, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front and any group linked to it.

Ahmad Ramadan of the Syrian National Coalition said the truce reached Thursday includes a halt to airstrikes and shelling.

Ramadan said in text messages sent to The Associated Press that members of the Free Syrian Army, a loose alliance of several moderate rebel factions, will abide by the truce -- but retaliate to violations by government and allied forces.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the truce will include 62,000 opposition fighters across Syria, and that the Russian military has established a hotline with its Turkish counterpart to monitor compliance.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said President-elect Donald Trump's administration would be welcome to join the Syrian peace process once he takes office.

Russia is a key ally of Assad, while Turkey is one of the main backers of the opposition. Several previous attempts to halt the civil war have failed.


Russia announces ceasefire in Syria from midnight

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a ceasefire between Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government starting at midnight on Thursday.

The parties were also prepared to start peace talks, Putin said, after Moscow, Iran and Turkey expressed readiness to broker a deal to settle the nearly six-year-old Syrian war.

The Syrian army announced a nationwide halt to fighting but said Islamic State and ex-Nusra Front militants and all groups linked to them would be excluded from the deal. It did not say which unnamed groups would be excluded.

Several rebel officials told Reuters they had agreed to the ceasefire, due to come into effect at 2200 GMT on Thursday.

It was the third nationwide ceasefire agreed in Syria this year. The previous two, negotiated by Washington and Moscow, collapsed within weeks as warring sides accused each other of violations. The current deal does not involve the United States or United Nations.

One rebel commander expressed optimism that this deal would hold: "This time I have confidence in its seriousness. There is new international input," he said, without elaborating.

Talks on the latest truce picked up momentum after Russia, Iran and Turkey last week said they were ready to back a peace deal and adopted a declaration setting out principles that any agreement should adhere to.

Putin said opposition groups and the Syrian government had signed a number of documents, including the ceasefire, measures to monitor the truce, and a statement on readiness to start peace talks.

"The agreements reached are, of course, fragile, need a special attention and involvement... But after all, this is a notable result of our joint work, efforts by the defence and foreign ministries, our partners in the regions," Putin said.

He also said Russia had agreed to reduce its military deployment in Syria, where its support has turned the tide in favour of President Bashar al-Assad in a war that has killed more than 300,000 and forced more than 11 million to flee their homes.

Turkey said it and Russia would guarantee the ceasefire.

"With this agreement, parties have agreed to cease all armed attacks, including aerial, and have promised not to expand the areas they control against each other," the Turkish foreign ministry said.

Three rebel officials told Reuters the deal excluded Islamic State, but did include the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, formerly al Qaeda's Syria branch, the Nusra Front - appearing to contradict the Syrian army's statement.

Russia's defence ministry said the insurgent groups that signed the agreement included the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, which operates primarily near Damascus, and Jabha Shamiya, one of the main groups that has operated in Aleppo.

WASHINGTON SIDELINED

The United States has been sidelined in recent negotiations and is not due to attend the next round of peace talks in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, a key Russian ally.

Its exclusion reflects growing frustration from both Turkey and Russia over Washington's policy on Syria, officials have said.

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States could join the peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month.

Talks on the ceasefire reflect the complexity of Syria's civil war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on all sides.

Turkey and Russia support different sides in the war. Ankara has insisted on the departure of Assad, who is backed by Russia.

Likewise, demands that troops from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement leave Syria may not please Iran, another major supporter of Assad. Hezbollah troops have been fighting alongside Syrian government forces against rebels opposed to Assad.

"All foreign fighters need to leave Syria. Hezbollah needs to return to Lebanon," Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.

Sources have told Reuters that, under an outline deal between the three countries, Syria could be divided into informal zones of regional power and Assad would remain president for at least a few years.

Meanwhile, disagreements remain between big powers.

Ankara supports the Free Syrian Army, a loose alliance of rebel groups, some of which it is backing in operations in northern Syria designed to sweep Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish fighters from its southern border.

The United States is backing the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, a move that has infuriated Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara fears that advances by Kurdish fighters in Syria could inflame militants at home.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has accused the United States of supporting terrorism in Syria, including Islamic State, comments that Washington has dismissed as "ludicrous".

"We, as Turkey, have been calling on Western nations for some time to not distinguish between terrorist organizations and to be principled and consistent in their stance," Erdogan said in a speech on Thursday.

"Some countries, namely the United States, have come up with some excuses on their own and overtly supported the organisations that massacre innocent people in our region."

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