Syria Ceasefire Holds

Marjeh Square, Damascus, on Feb. 27 during one of the previous ceasefires (File Photo)Marjeh Square, Damascus, on Feb. 27 during one of the previous ceasefires (File Photo)

A nationwide ceasefire in Syria, brokered by Russia and Turkey that back opposing sides in the conflict, appeared to hold early on Friday after a shaky start during the night in the latest attempt to end nearly six years of bloodshed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, announced the ceasefire on Thursday after forging the agreement with Turkey, a longtime backer of the opposition.

Monitors and a militant official reported clashes almost immediately after the truce took force at midnight between militants and Syrian Army forces along the provincial boundary between Idlib and Hama, and isolated incidents of gunfire further south, Reuters reported.

Hours later, calm prevailed in areas included in the deal, they said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the United States could join the peace process once president-elect, Donald Trump, takes office on January 20. He also wanted Egypt to join, together with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and the United Nations.

A number of militant groups have signed the agreement, Russia’s Defense Ministry said and a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a loose alliance of insurgent groups, said it would abide by the truce.

The ceasefire, in the waning days of the US President Barack Obama’s administration, was the first major international diplomatic initiative in the Middle East in decades not to involve the United States.

  Peace Talks Possible

Putin said the parties were also prepared to start peace talks intended to take place in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Syrian state media said late on Thursday those talks would take place “soon”.

The Syrian government will be negotiating from a strong position after its army and their allies, including Russian air power routed militants in their last major urban stronghold of Aleppo this month.

The ceasefire will have to hold before talks can take place. It follows a thaw in ties between Russia and Turkey.

Talks on the latest truce picked up momentum after Russia, Iran and Turkey said last week they were ready to back a peace deal and adopted a declaration setting out principles for an agreement.

  US Sidelined

In a sign of detente, the Turkish armed forces said on Friday Russian aircraft had carried out three airstrikes against the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group in the area of al-Bab in northern Syria, killing 12 of the terrorists.

Ankara is backing militants fighting against IS, which has made enemies of all other sides involved in the conflict.

Putin said opposition groups and the Syrian government had signed a number of documents, including the ceasefire, measures to monitor the truce and a statement on readiness to start peace talks.

The United States has been sidelined in recent negotiations and is not due to attend the next round of peace talks in Kazakhstan, a key Russian ally.

Its exclusion reflects growing frustration from both Turkey and Russia over Washington’s policy on Syria, officials have said.

Washington said the news of a ceasefire was positive.

“We hope it will be implemented fully and respected by all parties,” US State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said.

James Dobbins, a former senior US diplomat, said the lack of American involvement in the talks involving Russia, Iran and Turkey did not preclude the United States from being a major player in the region.

Trump has said he would cooperate more closely with Russia to fight terrorism but it was unclear what that policy would look like, given resistance from the Pentagon and the US intelligence community to closer cooperation with Russia on Syria.

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