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US, Russia announce Syria truce – Ceasefire to go into effect on Saturday, Feb 27

QTAIFEH, Syria: Syrian volunteers take part in paramilitary training conducted by the Syrian army 50 km north of the capital Damascus yesterday. — AFP
QTAIFEH, Syria: Syrian volunteers take part in paramilitary training conducted by the Syrian army 50 km north of the capital Damascus yesterday. — AFP

BEIRUT: Washington and Moscow announced yesterday that a cessation of hostilities in war-torn Syria will go into effect on Feb 27, as fierce clashes raged in the country’s north. The announcement comes just one day after the deadliest jihadist attack in the nearly five-year war, with 134 people – mostly civilians – killed in a series of blasts near Damascus. In a joint statement, Russia and the United States said the cessation of hostilities would not apply to the Islamic State group (IS) or Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

The statement said other parties engaged in fighting on the ground must indicate to Russia or the US whether they would take part in the agreement by midday Damascus time on Feb 26. It said the opposition and the Syrian government must agree to allow “rapid, unhindered, and sustained” humanitarian aid access and to cease all attacks – whether aerial bombardment or otherwise – on other parties to the agreement.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the deal as a “long-awaited signal of hope”, and urged all sides to abide by it. A spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee – the main grouping of opposition factions in Syria – said rebel groups were “studying the agreement”. Riad Naasan Agha told AFP that the HNC had discussed the ceasefire with the US special envoy to Syria Michael Ratney on Monday, but would not comment on whether it will agree to the proposal.

Deadliest Attack in War

US President Barack Obama and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to speak “in the next days or so” on the terms of implementing the agreement, according to US Secretary of State John Kerry. Announced by top diplomats in Munich earlier this month, the ceasefire failed to take hold by last Friday as initially planned.

Part of a plan that also included expanded humanitarian access, the proposal aims to pave the way for a resumption of peace talks that collapsed earlier this month in Geneva. The talks had been scheduled to resume on Feb 25, but the UN Syria envoy has acknowledged that date is no longer realistic. On Monday, the UN commission of inquiry said civilians remain the “primary victims” in Syria’s war and that accountability for war crimes must be part of the peace process.

“Paradoxically, the international and regional stakeholders that are ostensibly pushing for a peaceful solution to the war are the same that continue to feed the military escalation,” the 31-page report said. The HNC, meeting in Riyadh on Monday, has said any ceasefire must include provisions for Russia, Iran and foreign militia forces that back the regime to stop fighting.

IS on Sunday claimed responsibility for two deadly attacks in regime-held areas, which a monitor said killed 134 people near the Sayyida Zeinab shrine south of Damascus and at least 64 in the Al-Zahraa district of Homs. The bombings near the shrine marked the deadliest jihadist attack since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

Key Regime Road Cut

Russia began air strikes in Syria last September against what it said were “terrorists”, but has been accused of bombing non-jihadist rebel forces in support of President Bashar Al-Assad, a longtime ally. Iran has sent military advisers to Syria and the Tehran-backed Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah has deployed at least 6,000 militants to fight alongside Assad’s forces. Iran would have to be on board for any ceasefire to work, and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu made a surprise visit to Tehran on Sunday, saying he was delivering a “special message” from Putin to President Hassan Rouhani.

Efforts have been intensifying to resolve Syria’s war – which has killed more than 260,000 people, forced millions from their homes and devastated the country – as the conflict approaches the five-year mark. The rise of IS, which has seized large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq and become the preeminent global jihadist group, has focused attention on the need for a solution. The group has used its ultra-radical view of Islam to justify kidnapping minorities, including Assyrian Christians in northeast Syria.

Yesterday, IS released 42 Assyrians, the last remaining hostages from a wide-scale kidnapping in the northeast province of Hasakeh nearly one year ago, the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights said. But it also advanced against government forces in northern Aleppo province, cutting the only supply route linking the west of Aleppo with other government-held territory, the Observatory said. Fierce clashes were raging in the area, and if government forces are unable to recapture the road, it could slow their offensive. – AFP

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