Syria's cease-fire holding despite minor violations: Breakthrough in sight?
Observers expressed cautious optimism that the current cease-fire, the third this year, could last into 2017.
Beirut—A nationwide Syrian cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect at midnight held Friday despite minor violations, marking a potential breakthrough in a conflict that has disregarded high-level peace initiatives for more than five years.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes early Friday between troops and rebels in the central province of Hama and near the capital, Damascus. It said that later in the day a man was killed by sniper fire in eastern suburbs of Damascus, becoming the first fatality since the truce went into effect. The group also reported an aerial attack on the rebel-held Barada Valley near Damascus.
The Syrian army denied reports it was bombarding the Barada Valley region saying opposition claims aim to show that the army is not abiding by the truce.
Opposition activist Mazen al-Shami, who is based in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said minor clashes nearby left one rebel wounded. Activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh, in the southern Daraa province, said government forces had opened fire on rebel-held areas.
Several past attempts at halting the fighting have failed. The previous two Syria ceasefires, brokered by cold war foes Washington and Moscow, took effect in February and September but both collapsed within weeks as warring sides accused each other of truce violations and fighting intensified.
As with previous agreements, the current cease-fire excludes both the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front, which fights alongside other rebel factions, and the Islamic State group.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that the cease-fire will be guaranteed by both Moscow and Turkey, and the agreement has been welcomed by Iran. Moscow and Tehran provide crucial military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has long served as a rear base and source of supplies for the rebels.
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, Mr. Putin said in announcing the agreement. He described it, however, as "quite fragile" and requiring "special attention and patience."
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the cease-fire a "major achievement" in a tweet Friday. "Let's build on it by tackling the roots of extremist terror," he added.
Russia said the deal was signed by seven of Syria's major rebel factions, though one denied signing it.
One Free Syrian Army commander was optimistic about the truce deal, the third serious attempt this year at a nationwide ceasefire.
"This time I have confidence in its seriousness. There is new international input," Colonel Fares al-Bayoush said without elaborating, according to Reuters.
A UN official said he hopes that cease-fire would allow them to take aid to 15 besieged areas where some 700,000 people live. Jan Egeland, special advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, told The Associated Press that "we desperately need this ceasefire. The reports I have from the field is that there is a decrease, a marked decrease in fighting, in bombing, in violence, compared to yesterday. But certainly there's been a number of violations."
"We're willing, we're able to go to all of the 15 remaining besieged areas beyond east Aleppo. We can go in the next (few) days to all of them. But then we need unimpeded access," he said. "We need the government to give us all of the permits that they require us to have before we can go. We need security guarantees from all sides and we're not given them."
"January needs to be really different," Mr. Egeland added, "If not – there will be starvation, there will be untold, unnecessary deaths."
The truce came on the heels of a Russian-Turkish agreement earlier this month to evacuate the last rebels from eastern Aleppo after they were confined to a tiny enclave by a government offensive. The retaking of all of Aleppo marked Mr. Assad's greatest victory since the start of the 2011 uprising against his family's four-decade rule.
"The defeat of the terrorists in Aleppo is an important step toward ending the war," Assad said in an interview with TG5, an Italian TV station, adding that the capture of the city does not mean that the war has ended because "terrorists" are still in Syria.
The United States was left out of both agreements, reflecting the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington after the failure of previous diplomatic efforts on Syria.
Assad told TG5 "we are more optimistic, with caution," about the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has suggested greater cooperation with Russia against extremist groups.
"We can say part of the optimism could be related to better relation between the United States and Russia," Assad said, speaking in English.
"Mr. Trump, during his campaign – (said) that his priority is fighting terrorism, and we believe that this is the beginning of the solution, if he can implement what he announced," Assad said in the interview, which was apparently filmed before the cease-fire was announced.
Asked about the possibility of the United States' participation in the peace process in Kazakhstan, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the process would "be open to everyone."
"I hope that this cease-fire holds and turns into a lasting peace so that the deaths of more innocent people, of civilians and children is halted and 2017 brings calm," Yildirim said.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency meanwhile quoted the military as saying Russia carried out three airstrikes against Islamic State targets near the northern town of al-Bab, where Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces have been battling the extremist group. The strikes indicated that Russia and Turkey may work together to combat Islamic State militants once the fighting elsewhere in Syria has been halted.
Turkish Foreign Mevlut Cavusoglu Minister said the US-led coalition forces resumed aerial operations around al-Bab on Thursday, after Turkey complained that it was not getting support from its allies in its fight against IS there.
The Turkish military statement quoted by Anadolu did not say when the Russian air strikes took place, but said they killed 12 IS militants.
Separately, 26 IS militants, including some senior commanders, were killed in Turkish airstrikes on al-Bab and the Daglabash region, and some 17 IS targets were destroyed, Anadolu reported. It said a Turkish soldier was kill in an IS attack on troops south of the al-Azrak area.
It said among those killed was an IS commander known as Abu Hussein al-Tunsi.
Turkey sent troops and tanks into northern Syria in August to help opposition forces clear a border area of IS militants and curb the advances of US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, who are also battling the extremist group.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press video journalist Samira Becirovic in London contributed to this report. This report includes additional material from Reuters.