Syria's nationwide cease-fire holding despite minor violations

Pro-government fighters rest at a camp in Aleppo. The ceasefire has largely held across most of Syria. Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Media
BEIRUT –   A nationwide Syrian cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect at midnight was holding Friday despite minor violations, marking a potential breakthrough in a conflict that has been shredding 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, but said there have been no reports of civilian casualties since the truce began.

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.

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.

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.

In an interview with TG5, and Italian TV station, Assad said "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.

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.

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.

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.

Syria ceasefire holds as Russia and Turkey seek UN support

A ceasefire across Syria appeared to be holding on Friday as its brokers, Russia and Turkey, sought support at the UN security council for the plan it hopes will trump failed peace proposals and end the six-year conflict.

Despite violations blamed on both sides in parts of the country, there were no reported civilian casualties by Friday night and diplomats were hopeful that the fragile truce would take root, despite all other attempts failing.

Russia, which has invested much political stock in ending the fighting after bombing the opposition relentlessly for the past 15 months, said it would ask the security council on Saturday to endorse a resolution backing its bilateral pact with Turkey – which makes aid access to besieged areas conditional on all protagonists downing weapons.

The truce, which is the third announced this year, came into effect at midnight on Thursday and follows the evacuation of Aleppo and the city’s surrender to forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. It covers all areas of the country except those under Islamic State control.

Asaad Hanna, a political officer in the Free Syrian Army, said violence had reduced on Friday but had not stopped. “We cannot be optimistic about someone like the Russians who used to kill us for six years ... they are not angels,” Hanna said. “But we are happy because we are reducing the violence and working to find a solution for the current situation.”

The fall of Syria’s industrial capital, the last major city in which the rebels had a presence, was a seminal moment in the conflict, which allowed the Syrian leader to claim ascendancy on the battlefield and Russia and Turkey to take the initiative on the diplomatic front.

The momentum of the war has since tipped strongly in favour of Assad and his backers. The rebels have made no significant gains for much of the past year, their firepower blunted by Russia’s air campaign.

All previous attempts at establishing a ceasefire in Syria have failed within days of being announced. The US has been a key broker in several attempts, and partnered with Russia in the autumn to establish a joint control room to agree on targets.

Significant elements of the ceasefire plan were discussed earlier this year by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. However, Washington’s means to end the conflict have steadily evaporated as Barack Obama’s administration grinds to an end and an alliance between Moscow and Ankara continues to grow.

Negotiations have effectively sidelined Washington, which has angered Turkey over its alliance with Kurdish groups in Syria in the war against Isis. Russian tensions with the US are at their most serious in years, after Obama imposed sanctions on senior Russian spy chiefs over allegations of cyber-attacks to influence the outcome of the US presidential elections.

Iran has also thrown its weight behind the ceasefire, with the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, hailing the lull in fighting as a major achievement. Russia said on Thursday the deal had been signed by seven major opposition groups, although one of the most powerful, Ahrar al-Sham, denied having done so on Friday.

“Ahrar al-Sham has a number of reservations on the proposed agreement and the negotiations are linked to that, and we have therefore not signed it,” said Ahmad Qaran Ali, a spokesman for the group, raising doubts about the truce’s long-term viability.

Concerns were also raised by activists’ reports that, despite the downturn in fighting, the Wadi Barada valley, a rebel-held area north-west of Damascus that supplies nearly three-quarters of the capital’s water, had been targeted by artillery and helicopters throughout Thursday night and into Friday morning.

A central element in the momentum of the ceasefire plan has been the involvement of Turkey, which had been at odds with Moscow for the first six months of its intervention, but which is now on side with much of Russia’s agenda for Syria.

Key to the change has been Moscow’s stance towards the Syrian Kurds, whom both sides view as using the conflict to advance their territorial ambitions. In July, Vladimir Putin told the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that he supported Syria’s territorial integrity, meaning he did not support any attempt to use the war to advance a claim on sovereignty, which would directly impact Turkey’s four-decade war with Kurdish militants.

Erdoğan said at a press conference on Thursday night: “I would like to thank all those who supported the ceasefire process, especially my valuable friend Putin. Turkey will continue to make every effort to ensure the peace [and] stability of our region and Syria.”

Officials from all sides said they hoped the pact would hold in the run-up to negotiations next month in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, which could establish a path to peace.

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