US absent as Turkey and Russia broker peace deal
The Syrian government and the armed opposition yesterday agreed to a nationwide ceasefire leading to peace talks, in a breakthrough truce aimed at ending the bloody five-year conflict.
The ceasefire, due to start last night from midnight local time (10pm GMT), followed talks between Turkey and Russia and could potentially lead to a lasting political agreement.
If the truce lasts, regime and opposition groups will sit down for peace talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, next month.
Moscow and Ankara, which support opposing sides in the conflict, promised to act as guarantors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in Moscow that three documents had been signed: an agreement between the Syrian government and the rebels on a ceasefire, measures for overseeing the truce and an agreement to start peace talks.
He described the deal as "fragile" but expressed optimism that it would hold.
Mr Putin also declared that he would reduce Moscow's military contingent in Syria, which has been flying a bombing campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad since last year.
Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, said the truce would include 62,000 opposition fighters from seven armed groups across Syria, but would exclude Isil and the formerly al-Qa'ida-linked Islamist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS).
Those who did not observe the ceasefire "will be treated as terrorists," Mr Shoigu said.
The agreement also excluded the YPG, the Kurdish militia that has carved out de facto autonomous areas in the north of the country.
Turkey considers it a terrorist organisation.
Leaders from the opposition told 'The Daily Telegraph' all rebel-held areas of Syria would be covered by the truce.
However, uncertainty remained about the province of Idlib, which is now the opposition's largest stronghold and home to thousands of fighters and civilians evacuated from Aleppo.
The area is largely under the control of JFS and more extreme Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham.
Ahrar al-Sham is one of the seven groups the Russian ministry of defence said had signed the ceasefire deal, although Moscow has previously described it as a terrorist group.
The government has escalated its aerial campaign against the area since the fall of Aleppo and could use the pretext of combating terrorism to continue strikes there despite a truce.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President, declared the agreement an "historic opportunity" to end the conflict and said it could set the stage for a peace settlement in Astana.
Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian adviser to Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy on Syria, said the talks could start before Donald Trump's inauguration as US president on Jan 20.
Mr Putin and Mr Assad agreed in a telephone conversation last night that the Astana talks would be "an important step towards finally resolving the crisis," the Kremlin said.
According to a Russian analyst with close links to the Kremlin, a political deal under discussion could involve Mr Assad remaining in power until the next presidential election in 2018.
The Syrian opposition and its allies had previously made his immediate removal a precondition for talks.
Syria could then effectively be carved up by major powers to create something resembling a federalist state: Turkey and the opposition in control of the so-called buffer zone along the Syrian border and the government in control of the country's major cities including Aleppo.
Syrian Kurds may be allowed a semi-autonomous territory in the northeast, much like Kurdistan in Iraq.
The deal agreed yesterday, reached without US involvement, underscores the West's diminishing role.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, pointedly said the US could join in talks only after Mr Trump's inauguration.