Syria ceasefire appears to hold after rivals sign Russia-backed deal

Despite some early clashes, all sides say they hope this time the pact will hold in the run-up to talks in Kazakhstan that could lay out path to peace

A ceasefire has come into effect across Syria after the Assad regime and the opposition agreed to a nationwide deal brokered by Turkey and Russia. It is hoped the fragile pact could mark a key turning point and usher in peace talks aimed at bringing an end to the six-year conflict that has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half of Syria’s population.

The deal came into force at midnight (10pm GMT) on Thursday and appeared to be holding early on Friday after reports of clashes early on. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said rebels had violated the truce deal and taken over a position in Hama province, while a rebel group also accused the government of shelling areas in Atshan and Skeik villages in Idlib province, which borders Hama. By morning, though, calm prevailed in the areas included in the deal, according to monitors.

It is the third ceasefire agreement this year. There was confusion over which rebel groups have signed up, but officials from all sides said they hoped this time the pact would hold in the run-up to talks next month in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, that could lay out a path to peace.

“We consider the ceasefire an important step to resolve the Syrian conflict,” said Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “Along with the Russian Federation, we support this arrangement as a guarantor.”

Notably absent from the brokering of the deal was the US, which has moved to the sidelines in recent months as Moscow has stepped up military and diplomatic involvement in Syria.

Rebel groups, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham Islamist movement and Jaysh al-Islam, which operates mostly near Damascus, signed up to the agreement after hours of negotiations in Ankara. The Syrian military said it would cease combat operations except against terrorist groups including Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the former al-Qaida wing in Syria that has publicly severed ties with the global terror network.

“We have just received news that a few hours ago the event we have all been waiting for and working towards has happened,” the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said of the signing of the deal during a televised meeting with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and its defence minister, Sergei Shoigu.

Putin said three documents had been signed: a ceasefire agreement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition; a list of control mechanisms to ensure the ceasefire would work; and a statement of intent to begin negotiations on a political end to the conflict.

Speaking before the midnight deadline, Putin described the ceasefire as fragile and said it would “require a lot of attention”.

The deal comes after a series of significant losses for the opposition and a shift in the war’s momentum in favour of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The rebels recently lost control of half of the city of Aleppo, the last major city in Syria in which they had a presence, their defence lines crushed in weeks of sustained attack. They have also come under bombardment in the province of Idlib and in rural areas near Damascus. Elsewhere they have made no significant gains for much of the past year, their firepower blunted by Russia’s relentless air campaign.

Syria map

The deal may yet founder as others have in the past year, over the competing interests struggling for dominance in Syria. The regime and Iran may decide not to honour the agreement, seeking to capitalise on their recent victories to finally crush the rebellion.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has acted as a spoiler in previous agreements including the Aleppo evacuation, and it has entrenched itself among the Islamist rebels who have signed up to the pact.

And if the talks in Astana next month fail as other peace initiatives have, the fighting is likely to resume. The talks are set to include Russia, Turkey and Iran, whose top diplomats met earlier this month in an effort to kickstart peace talks, as well as representatives from the regime and the opposition.

The absence of the United States offers a hint at the frustration over American policies on Syria, both within Russia, the key backer of Syrian strongman Assad, and Turkey, a stalwart supporter of the opposition.

Ankara and Moscow recently mended ties after a months-long estrangement over the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace. Key differences remain between the two powers, with Turkey eager to see Assad leave and the Kremlin playing a crucial role in his recent battlefield victories.

The two countries recently negotiated an evacuation deal that saw the defeated rebels in Aleppo and tens of thousands of civilians leave the embattled city after a ferocious offensive by Assad’s allies, primarily Iranian-backed militias from Iraq and Lebanon.

Moscow hopes a peace deal will cement its role as a regional and global power that intervened in Syria decisively while the rebels’ backers, including the US, dithered. Ankara hopes to limit the fallout from the war across the border, which has driven over 2 million refugees into the country, with many more expected to flee if the Syrian government resumes its military campaign in Idlib, which borders Turkey. It also wants to blunt the expansion of Kurdish paramilitaries in northern Syria, whose plans for an autonomous zone it considers a national security threat.

The peace talks also highlight the complex web of interests involved in the Syrian war. Turkey and Russia brokered this agreement, as well as the Aleppo evacuation, on behalf of Syrian proxies and are now set to play a role as guarantors in the absence of American or UN involvement in the talks.

There was confusion over whether Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is included in the deal. Turkish officials said groups designated by the UN security council were excluded from the agreement, but a senior rebel official said the militants were covered by the ceasefire. The group was considered a legitimate target for military action under previous ceasefires.

“A general ceasefire that does not exclude any of the areas under the control of the rebels, and does not exclude any faction in those areas, will go into effect at 12 [midnight] Syria time,” said Osama Abu Zeid, a legal adviser with the Free Syrian Army, who is involved in the negotiations.

In Damascus, the Syrian army said the ceasefire came after the “successes achieved by the armed forces”, an apparent reference to the capture of rebel-held neighbourhoods of Aleppo this month.

Lavrov said talks to implement the agreements would take place soon in Astana, and would involve Russia, Turkey, Iran and possibly Egypt, as well as the parties to the Syrian conflict. At a later stage other players including Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan could be asked to join, he added.

Lavrov said the US could be invited to join after Donald Trump became president next month, in order that the countries could work “in a friendly and collective manner”.

A state department spokesman described news of the ceasefire as a “positive development” that the US hoped would be “implemented fully and respected by all parties”.

“Any effort that stops the violence, saves lives, and creates the conditions for renewed and productive political negotiations would be welcome,” the spokesman said.

Erdoğan described the ceasefire as a “historic opportunity” that should not be wasted. He told a news conference in Ankara: “This is a window of opportunity that has been opened and should not be squandered.”

The ceasefire will be the first nationwide halt to the fighting since a week-long truce in September that collapsed after several incidents of violence. A previous truce implemented in February also fell apart. Both those deals were organised by Russia and the US.

Russian state television has presented the country’s intervention as a black-and-white struggle against terrorism, with none of the distressing images of regime victims and the bombardment of Aleppo shown. Russian officials were quick to talk up the ceasefire as vindication of Moscow’s strategy.

“Russia has again proved its leading role in international peacekeeping activities,” said Sergei Zheleznyak, a Russian MP and member of the parliament’s international affairs committee. He called the agreement “a major diplomatic, military and political success”.

If a ceasefire can hold and meaningful progress is made on negotiations, it will indeed be a huge coup for Putin, who launched Moscow’s first intervention outside the borders of the former Soviet Union since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in order to provide backing to Assad.

Putin will also take satisfaction in the successful sidelining of the US from the process, after years of fruitless discussions between the two countries’ foreign ministers over Syria.

It was no accident that in noting all the “interested powers” who might be involved in the talks, the US was mentioned way down the list, after regional players. And it was pointed of Lavrov to say the US could be included in talks only after Trump becomes president.

The outgoing Obama administration has been scathing of Russia’s role in Syria. Earlier this month, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, launched a scathing attack on her Russian counterpart asking him if he was “incapable of feeling shame”.


Shaun Walker in Moscow and Kareem Shaheen in Istanbul and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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