Monday 9 December 2019

'Cessation of hostilities' to let aid into besieged Syrian towns

World powers agree tentative deal - but come up short of full ceasefire

A Syrian boy looks through a gate as others wait to cross into Syria at Oncupinar border crossing in the southeastern city of Kilis, in Turkey.
A Syrian boy looks through a gate as others wait to cross into Syria at Oncupinar border crossing in the southeastern city of Kilis, in Turkey.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry Photo: Reuters

David Millward in Munich

A cessation of hostilities in Syria set to begin in a week and to provide rapid humanitarian access to besieged Syrian towns was agreed by world powers yesterday.

However they failed to secure a complete ceasefire or an end to Russian bombing.

Following a marathon meeting in Munich aimed at resurrecting peace talks that collapsed last week, the powers, including the United States, Russia and more than a dozen other nations, reaffirmed their commitment to a political transition when conditions on the ground improved.

At a news conference, US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the Munich meeting produced commitments on paper only.

"What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground, in the field," he said, adding that "without a political transition, it is not possible to achieve peace."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the news conference that Russia would not stop air attacks in Syria, saying the cessation of hostilities did not apply to Isil and al Nusrah, which is affiliated with al-Qa'ida.

"Our airspace forces will continue working against these organisations," he said.

The United States and European allies say few Russian strikes have targeted those groups, with the vast majority hitting Western-backed opposition groups seeking to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Lavrov said peace talks should resume in Geneva as soon as possible and that all Syrian opposition groups should participate. He added that halting hostilities would be a difficult task.

But British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said ending fighting could only succeed if Russia stopped air strikes supporting Syrian government forces' advance against the opposition.

Diplomats cautioned that Russia had until now not demonstrated any interest in seeing Assad replaced and was pushing for a military victory.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday raised the spectre of an interminable conflict or even a world war if powers failed to negotiate an end to five years of fighting in Syria, which has killed hundreds of thousands, caused a refugee crisis and empowered Isil militants.


Syria's main opposition group welcomed the plan by the world powers yesterday.

It cautioned, however, that the agreement must prove to be effective before it joins political talks with government representatives in Geneva.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Mr Assad said he would keep "fighting terrorism" while peace talks took place and saw a risk of Saudi and Turkish intervention in the Syrian conflict, according to an interview with news agency AFP published yesterday.

Assad said he would retake the whole country, but that this could take a long time.

The interview, which AFP said was Assad's first in about two months, took place in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Thursday before the conclusion of the talks in Munich where major powers agreed to the cessation of hostilities.

Russian air strikes have been helping Assad and allied forces wage an intensifying offensive to retake the northern city of Aleppo and surrounding area.

In the interview, Assad also said that the purpose of the battle for Aleppo was to cut the route north to Turkey.

Assad said that the country's "problem" could be solved in less than a year if opposition supply routes from Turkey, Jordan and Iraq were cut.

Over the past two weeks, the Russian-backed Syrian army offensive has succeeded in cutting off the main supply route from rebel held areas of Aleppo to the Turkish border.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey back rebel forces in the war that has lasted nearly half a decade, killed 250,000 people and sent 4.4 million refugees fleeing for safety.

The Munich deal means that humanitarian aid is to be delivered to besieged areas in the next few days, followed by a "cessation of hostilities" - a term distinct from ceasefire, apparently allowing for a likely resumption of violence - within a week.

Mr Kerry seemed under no illusions about the difficulty of achieving even such limited goals. "This is ambitious," he said, flanked by Mr Lavrov. "The real test is whether all the parties honour those commitments."

The agreement theoretically represents the first statement of intent to halt brutal fighting that began in the weeks of soaring hope at the height of the Arab Spring. The trouble is the continued existence of powerful forces with an interest in continuing the war. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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