Ceasefire in Syria to start at midnight
MOSCOW/ANKARA –– Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a ceasefire between Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government starting at midnight on Thursday.
The parties were also prepared to start peace talks, Putin said, after Moscow, Iran and Turkey expressed readiness to broker a deal to settle the nearly six-year-old Syrian war.
The Syrian army announced a nationwide halt to fighting but said Islamic State and ex-Nusra Front militants and all groups linked to them would be excluded from the deal. It did not say which unnamed groups would be excluded.
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a loose alliance of rebel groups, said it would abide by the ceasefire, due to come into force at 8 p.m. GMT, and take part in future talks.
It was the third nationwide ceasefire agreed in Syria this year. The previous two, negotiated by Washington and Moscow, collapsed within weeks as warring sides accused each other of violations. The current deal does not involve the United States or United Nations.
The latest ceasefire deal follows a major defeat for the anti-Assad rebellion in Aleppo, where the Russian air force and Iranian-backed ground forces played a critical role helping the government drive rebels from eastern parts of the city.
It also follows a thaw in ties between Russia and Turkey.
While Ankara has been a big sponsor of the rebellion, Assad’s removal has become a secondary concern to combatting the expansion of Kurdish influence in northern Syria. The chances of Assad’s opponents forcing him from power now seem more remote than at any point in the war.
One rebel commander expressed optimism that this deal would be more effective. “This time I have confidence in its seriousness. There is new international input,” said Colonel Fares al-Bayoush, an FSA commander, without elaborating.
Talks on the latest truce picked up momentum after Russia, Iran and Turkey last week said they were ready to back a peace deal and adopted a declaration setting out principles for an agreement.
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 agreements reached are, of course, fragile, need a special attention and involvement… But after all, this is a notable result of our joint work, efforts by the defense and foreign ministries, our partners in the regions,” Putin said.
He also said Russia had agreed to reduce its military deployment in Syria, where its support has turned the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad in a war that has killed more than 300,000 and forced more than 11 million to flee their homes.
Putin spoke by phone to Assad who said he was committed to observing the ceasefire, the Kremlin said.
Turkey said it and Russia would guarantee the ceasefire.
“This window of opportunity should not be wasted,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said.
Three rebel officials told Reuters the deal excluded Islamic State, but did include the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, formerly al Qaeda’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front – appearing to contradict the Syrian army’s statement.
The Free Syrian Army spokesman said the ceasefire also does not include the Kurdish YPG militia, which has mostly avoided conflict with the Syrian government. The YPG could not immediately be reached for comment.
Russia’s defense ministry said insurgent groups that signed the agreement included the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, which operates primarily near Damascus, and Jabha Shamiya, one of the main Turkey-backed FSA groups that had operated in Aleppo.
However, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham said it had reservations about the agreement and had not signed it.
The United States has been sidelined in recent negotiations and is not due to attend the next round of peace talks in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, a key Russian ally.
Its exclusion reflects growing frustration from both Turkey and Russia over Washington’s policy on Syria, officials have said.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States could join the peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month. He also wanted Egypt to join, together with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and the United Nations.
Washington said the news of a ceasefire was a positive.
“We hope it will be implemented fully and respected by all parties,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
The United Nations Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the ceasefire announcement and hoped it would save civilian lives, enable the delivery of aid and lead to productive peace talks in Astana.
The deal should also help UN negotiations on Syria to be held in February, de Mistura’s spokeswoman said.