Sunday 18 August 2019

Quiet start to Syria ceasefire

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, listen to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow, Russia on Thursday. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, listen to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow, Russia on Thursday. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

A ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey is in force in war-ravaged Syria, marking a potential breakthrough in the six years of fighting that has left more than 250,000 dead and triggered a refugee crisis across Europe.

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, Russian president Vladimir Putin said in announcing the agreement.

A Syrian army soldier places a Syrian national flag during a battle with rebel fighters at the Ramouseh front line, east of Aleppo. Photo: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File
A Syrian army soldier places a Syrian national flag during a battle with rebel fighters at the Ramouseh front line, east of Aleppo. Photo: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File

He described it, however, as "quite fragile" and requiring "special attention and patience".

The first half-hour of the ceasefire, which began at midnight local time, was one of "comprehensive calm", said Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

He said before the truce came into force, the government was bombing several areas, including the province of Aleppo and suburbs of the capital Damascus.

The truce had the backing of both Russia, Syria's chief battlefield ally, and Turkey, which has been supporting 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.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, second right, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, listen to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, second left, during talks in Moscow, Russia. Photo: AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, second right, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, listen to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, second left, during talks in Moscow, Russia. Photo: AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File

Several previous ceasefires in the Syrian civil war all collapsed, some of them in a matter of days. And this latest agreement, like previous ones, does not include extremist factions such as the Islamic State group and al Qaida's branch in Syria.

Still, the deal raised hopes for a political settlement to the ruinous war, in part because the landscape has significantly shifted recently.

The tide has now turned in Syrian president Bashar Assad's favour militarily over the past year, with the government retaking Aleppo city from the rebels just days ago. Also, Turkey, which is fighting Kurdish and Islamic militants at home, appears more willing to strike a bargain with Russia if it means protecting its borders.

"This is a different political scene, and one would expect some outcomes to emerge," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut. He warned, however, against expecting immediate results from the first round of talks.

Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem welcomed the ceasefire agreement said there was a "real chance" for a political settlement.

In comments made to Syrian TV, he said the Syrian government would attend the peace talks "with an open mind", but suggested it would not be willing to compromise on Assad's fate. Assad's remaining in power has been a major sticking point in the crisis.

"Everything is negotiable except national sovereignty and the people's right to choose its leadership," Mr al-Moallem said.

Mr Putin said the ceasefire would be guaranteed by both Moscow and Turkey. Turkey has been allowing opposition forces to use its long border with Syria to cross back and forth. The agreement was also praised by Iran, another of Assad's strongest backers.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said that the truce would include 62,000 opposition fighters across Syria and that the Russian military had established a hotline with its Turkish counterpart to monitor compliance.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said US president-elect Donald Trump's administration would be welcome to join the peace process once he took office.

Mr Putin said he ordered the Russian military to scale back its presence in Syria, where it has provided crucial support to Assad's forces. He did not say how many troops and weapons would be withdrawn but that Russia would continue "fighting international terrorism in Syria" and supporting Assad's military.

The United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the ceasefire announcement, saying he hoped the agreement would save civilian lives, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid and pave the way for productive peace talks.

Earlier, Turkey called on Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria. The Iranian-backed extremist group has sent thousands of fighters to support Assad and has been playing an instrumental role in the civil war since 2013.

Foreign fighters from around the world have joined both sides of the Syrian conflict, which has displaced half the country's population and produced more than four million refugees. Many of those have been streaming into Europe, fueling anti-immigration sentiment and terrorist fears that are reshaping the continent's political landscape.

Syria's military noted that the ceasefire came after the "successes achieved by the armed forces", an apparent reference to the fierce fighting in Aleppo.

Osama Abo Zayd, a spokesman for mainstream Syrian opposition groups, said in the Turkish capital Ankara that 13 armed opposition factions had signed the agreement.

He said the peace talks would be based on the Geneva 2012 declaration that calls for a governing body with full executive powers to run Syria during a transition period.

"This means that there will be no presence for Assad in the future," he said.

But Prof Khashan said Assad's exit was "out of the question".

''Neither the Russians nor the Iranians would allow it to happen," he said.

Saeed Sadek, a professor of political sociology at Cairo's Future University, said Assad had no power to accept or reject any deals.

"He is now under the control of Moscow, Tehran and Ankara. All these countries will decide his future," he said.

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