Regime Attacks Test Syria Cease-Fire

BEIRUT—A nationwide cease-fire in Syria appeared increasingly tenuous Friday as government airstrikes pounded rebel areas while clashes broke out on several fronts, threatening Russian and Turkish efforts to clinch a broader political solution to the nearly six-year war.

Government warplanes and helicopter gunships struck rebel positions in the countryside of Damascus and in the provinces of Idlib and Hama throughout the day, according to rebels. Pro-government websites confirmed the attacks, saying regime forces targeted radical groups excluded from the truce.

Despite the fragility of the agreement, Syrian government ally Russia doubled down on its commitment to the truce, which could lead to peace talks between the Damascus regime and the opposition. Russia and rebel ally Turkey have upheld their peace plan as the best path toward a negotiated resolution to the Syrian war and have sidelined the U.S. in the process, part of shifting geopolitical undercurrents across the Mideast.

At the United Nations on Friday, Russia circulated a draft resolution that would endorse the Syrian cease-fire. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters that he hoped the Security Council would vote on the resolution on Saturday.

One of the biggest potential spoilers to the agreement is Syria Conquest Front, an al Qaeda-linked group excluded from the cease-fire. The radical group shares multiple front lines with the more moderate rebels who signed on to the truce. But government forces are allowed to target Syria Conquest Front under the terms of the agreement. Islamic State is also excluded from the truce.

By late Friday, rebel groups initially supportive of the cease-fire said government forces were using Syria Conquest Front’s minor presence around Damascus as justification to strike around the capital. The government gains were hammering the ranks of the more moderate factions that dominate those front lines, they said, including Jaish al-Islam, which signed the cease-fire.

But in much of northern Syria, rebels said the truce was generally sticking.

“This is a dramatic reduction in aerial bombardments, but this isn’t a true cease-fire by definition. The government is upholding the truce in some areas and isn’t in others,” said a member of the political opposition who is privy to continuing talks between rebels and Turkish officials in Ankara.

The armed opposition is tired and severely weakened after nearly six years of war and may ignore the government bombardment around Damascus in order to preserve the fragile peace achieved in most of northern Syria, he said.

“If rebels decide to sacrifice Ghouta and Wadi Barada to maintain cease-fire in the north and buy time, then the cease-fire will hold,” he added, naming the Damascus suburbs hit by Syrian government airstrikes.

The Syrian government, backed by Russian air power, has steadily expanded their grip across the country and last week it retook Aleppo, the country’s economic capital before the war.

If the latest truce holds, Russia and Turkey said they would sponsor peace talks between President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition in January in the Kazakh capital Astana. Two previous truces this year, including one backed by Russia and the U.S., failed in relatively short order. That left the civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions, to grind on.

Russia and Turkey have made a Syria peace deal the cornerstone of warming relations between their governments, a geopolitical shift as U.S. influence wanes in the region and Moscow steps in to fill the void. Turkey this summer warmed to Russia’s position on Syria, with Turkish officials softening their stance that Mr. Assad resign, a redline for Moscow.

Syria’s armed forces said Thursday that they would stop combat operations under the deal. Russia and Turkey said they would serve as guarantors of the cease-fire, although how violations would be monitored or punished wasn’t revealed. The two sponsors have revealed few details about the cease-fire, a point of contention among rebel groups.

The truce has seen various hurdles since it was hammered out between Ankara and Moscow this week.

One of the most powerful Islamist rebel groups, Ahrar al-Sham, rejected the truce late Thursday night after Moscow said the group had signed the deal. Ahrar al-Sham’s spokesman said his group had reservations over the agreement but didn’t specify what they were.

Another large rebel group active in northern Syria, Nour al-Dine al-Zinki, voiced its support for the cease-fire but didn’t sign on to the agreement over concerns that Russia and the Syrian government wouldn’t uphold the deal.

“The international resolutions issued by the Security Council are the ones that should be implemented and we wait for Russia to keep its pledges and to implement these resolutions,” said Yasser al-Youssef, a political representative for the rebel group. “We will show positivity toward the international efforts [seeking to] limit violence and start a serious political dialogue,” he said.

Cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey begins across Syria

Syrians sit on a street in the northwestern city of Idlib on Friday, as a fragile quiet fell across Syria after a truce brokered by Russia and Turkey came into effect. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
A cease-fire announced by the Syrian government went into ­effect across the country early Friday as part of a broader deal that includes a return to peace talks to end more than five years of war.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reestablished control over the northern city of Aleppo earlier this month, forcing rebels to flee what was once their largest stronghold and handing the government a victory that appeared to bring the war’s endgame into view.

The Assad government, backed by Russia and Iran, is now in its strongest position since the start of the war, while rebel groups are mostly boxed into the northwestern province of Idlib and hold no strategically significant urban areas.

The Syrian military declared in a statement issued Thursday that the “comprehensive” cessation of hostilities follows “victories and advances” by the armed forces.

The cease-fire was reported to be generally holding Friday, despite some relatively minor violations. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said clashes occurred early Friday between government troops and rebels in Hama province and near Damascus but that no civilian casualties were reported. The group also said Syrian warplanes carried out at least 16 airstrikes Friday against rebels in Hama.

Russia and Turkey, which brokered the deal, said they could guarantee compliance from the government and its armed opposition, respectively, after weeks of negotiations.

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the agreement a “historic opportunity” that should not be squandered. But in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged it was “fragile.”

The agreement marks an ambitious venture by the Russian leader to establish himself as the dominant dealmaker in the Syrian conflict and further sideline the United States less than a month before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The Syrian army said the cease-fire excluded “terrorist organizations,” notably the Islamic State but also the country’s al-Qaeda affiliate, an influential component of what remains of Syria’s armed opposition. The caveat suggested that the fighting could continue in Idlib, now the rebels’ final bastion.

Speaking in a televised meeting with his defense and foreign ministers Thursday, Putin said three documents were signed: the cease-fire to begin Friday between the Syrian government and certain rebel groups, an agreement on monitoring the truce and a statement of readiness to begin peace talks.

[On the road to Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital]

The State Department said it had played no part in the negotiations but called news of the cease-fire a “positive development.” Mark Toner, a department spokesman, said, “We hope it will be implemented fully and respected by all parties.”

As President Obama prepares to leave office next month, Washington’s influence in Syria is much diminished. Russia and Turkey have taken the lead on initiatives to end a war that has killed almost half a million people, spurred the largest refugee crisis since World War II and given safe haven to a global terrorist threat in the form of the Islamic State.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not mention Obama in his remarks, instead inviting the incoming Trump administration to join the process after the president-elect’s inauguration.

“I would also like to express my hope that when the administration of Donald Trump assumes its responsibilities, they may also join these efforts in order to work toward this goal in a friendly and collective manner,” Lavrov said during the meeting.

Trump has signaled his willingness to work with Moscow on a solution to the Syrian conflict. He is also on record as supporting policies that include a withdrawal of support for the armed opposition and the establishment of “safe zones” for civilians.

The intervention of Russia’s air force last year transformed the Syrian government’s fortunes, quashing a major rebel offensive and turning the war in Damascus’s favor. Although Russia later announced a partial withdrawal, its air and ground forces continue to play an important role, even as the influence of Assad’s other main backer, Iran, rises.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said seven opposition groups with a combined 60,000 fighters from central and northern Syria have agreed to the cease-fire, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, two powerful Islamist factions.

The exclusion of groups linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda seemed to be the latest attempt to peel jihadist fighters from more-moderate elements in the armed opposition.

The al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly called Jabhat al-Nusra, contributes significant firepower to a coalition of rebel groups in Idlib province. U.S. officials say it may be difficult to separate the extremists fighting alongside a number of key rebel groups.

Previous cease-fires have been short-lived. A similar deal announced by the United States and Russia in February lasted longer than most but was over by July. A U.S.-Russian deal in September lasted a week.

The Syrian National Coalition, a leading political opposition group based in Turkey, confirmed its support for the truce. A senior official, Hadi al-Bahra, described it in a message posted to Twitter as “a positive achievement,” saying his group would “make sure that this agreement will be implemented fully.”

But as diplomacy continued, so did the fighting. A Syrian rescue group known as the White Helmets said Thursday that at least 12 people were killed and 27 injured in airstrikes and artillery shelling on civilian homes in Eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb. Footage from the area showed an elderly man being carried to an ambulance, his blood-soaked scarf streaking the vehicle as his stretcher was placed inside.
Peace efforts in Syria must still survive the many potential pitfalls of the shaky alliance between Russia and Turkey. But if Putin’s gambit to play peacemaker among the bitter regional ­rivals of the Middle East is successful, it would mark his greatest international achievement to date. To broker a solution to the region’s bloodiest conflict while excluding the United States would be an important shift in the international balance of power — one that Putin has called for publicly since he took power in 2000.

Syria's cease-fire holding despite minor violations

BEIRUT (AP) — A nationwide Syrian cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect at midnight held Friday despite minor violations, marking a potential breakthrough in a conflict that has disregarded high-level peace initiatives for over five years.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes early Friday between troops and rebels in the central province of Hama and near the capital, Damascus. It said that later in the day a man was killed by sniper fire in eastern suburbs of Damascus, becoming the first fatality since the truce went into effect. The group also reported an aerial attack on the rebel-held Barada Valley near Damascus.

The Syrian army denied reports it was bombarding the Barada Valley region saying opposition claims aim to show that the army is not abiding by the truce.

Opposition activist Mazen al-Shami, who is based in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said minor clashes nearby left one rebel wounded. Activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh, in the southern Daraa province, said government forces had opened fire on rebel-held areas.
Several past attempts at halting the fighting have failed. As with previous agreements, the current cease-fire excludes both the al-Qaida-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front, which fights alongside other rebel factions, and the Islamic State group.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that the cease-fire will be guaranteed by both Moscow and Turkey, and the agreement has been welcomed by Iran. Moscow and Tehran provide crucial military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has long served as a rear base and source of supplies for the rebels.

If it holds, the truce between the Syrian government and the country's mainstream rebel forces will be followed by peace talks next month in Kazakhstan, Putin said in announcing the agreement. He described it, however, as "quite fragile" and requiring "special attention and patience."

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the cease-fire a "major achievement" in a tweet Friday. "Let's build on it by tackling the roots of extremist terror," he added.

Russia said the deal was signed by seven of Syria's major rebel factions, though none of them immediately confirmed it, and one denied signing it.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin circulated a draft resolution that would endorse the cease-fire agreement and said he hoped for a vote Saturday morning. But several council members said they needed time to study the agreement and the resolution so it wasn't clear when a vote would take place.

U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien urged the Syrian government in an interview with The Associated Press to give the green light for the United Nations to deliver aid to thousands in need in the war-ravaged country and ensure aid workers' safety.

He called the cessation of hostilities "extremely welcome" and said "incessant and relentless contacts are going on" with the government, but so far there has been no positive response.

Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, told AP the U.N. especially wants to get aid to the 15 besieged areas where some 700,000 people live, but it needs security guarantees from all sides "and we're not given them."
"The reports I have from the field is that there is a decrease, a marked decrease in fighting, in bombing, in violence, compared to yesterday. But certainly there's been a number of violations," he said.
"January needs to be really different," Egeland stressed. "If not — there will be starvation, there will be untold, unnecessary deaths."
The truce came on the heels of a Russian-Turkish agreement earlier this month to evacuate the last rebels from eastern Aleppo after they were confined to a tiny enclave by a government offensive. The retaking of all of Aleppo marked Assad's greatest victory since the start of the 2011 uprising against his family's four-decade rule.
"The defeat of the terrorists in Aleppo is an important step toward ending the war," Assad said in an interview with TG5, an Italian TV station, adding that the capture of the city does not mean that the war has ended because "terrorists" are still in Syria.
The United States was left out of both agreements, reflecting the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington after the failure of previous diplomatic efforts on Syria.

Assad told TG5 "we are more optimistic, with caution," about the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has suggested greater cooperation with Russia against extremist groups.

"We can say part of the optimism could be related to better relation between the United States and Russia," Assad said, speaking in English.

"Mr. Trump, during his campaign - (said) that his priority is fighting terrorism, and we believe that this is the beginning of the solution, if he can implement what he announced," Assad said in the interview, which was apparently filmed before the cease-fire was announced.

Asked about the possibility of the United States' participation in the peace process in Kazakhstan, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the process would "be open to everyone."
"I hope that this cease-fire holds and turns into a lasting peace so that the deaths of more innocent people, of civilians and children is halted and 2017 brings calm," Yildirim said.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency meanwhile quoted the military as saying Russia carried out three airstrikes against Islamic State targets near the northern town of al-Bab, where Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces have been battling the extremist group. The strikes indicated that Russia and Turkey may work together to combat IS once the fighting elsewhere in Syria has been halted.

Turkish Foreign Mevlut Cavusoglu Minister said the U.S.-led coalition forces resumed aerial operations around al-Bab on Thursday, after Turkey complained that it was not getting support from its allies in its fight against IS there.
The Turkish military statement quoted by Anadolu did not say when the Russian air strikes took place, but said they killed 12 IS militants.

Separately, 26 IS militants, including some senior commanders, were killed in Turkish airstrikes on al-Bab and the Daglabash region, and some 17 IS targets were destroyed, Anadolu reported. It said a Turkish soldier was kill in a IS attack on troops south of the al-Azrak area.

It said among those killed was an IS commander known as Abu Hussein al-Tunsi.

Turkey sent troops and tanks into northern Syria in August to help opposition forces clear a border area of IS militants and curb the advances of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, who are also battling the extremist group.

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