Newly brokered cease-fire between Syrian government and rebels goes into effect

A countrywide cease-fire took effect in Syria at midnight local time Thursday, the result of a pact brokered by Russia and Turkey that will scale down Russia’s military presence in the war-torn nation and serve as a prelude to peace talks early next year. 

Earlier Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced the cease-fire between seven moderate opposition groups and the government of President Bashar Assad.

The deal, which Putin conceded was “fragile,” does not include the U.S. or the main jihadist groups fighting against the government. Mideast observers, noting other cease-fire efforts have failed, doubted this one will fare much better.

Putin said the cease-fire would involve 60,000 militants in central and northern Syria. He said the deal also includes measures to police the cease-fire on the ground and calls for talks between the warring sides in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana at an unspecified date.

“Russia will unconditionally continue the struggle against international terrorism and furnish support for the legitimate Syrian government in its struggle with terrorism,” Putin said in televised remarks, adding that Russia would reduce its military presence in Syria but keep its airbase near the western city of Latakia and a naval outpost in the Mediterranean port of Tartus.

Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of Fastaqim Kama Umert, a rebel faction, confirmed that the truce had been set up. 

“We have agreed to a truce. ... The Turks and the Russians will be on the ground as observers,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. 

“After a month from this truce, there will be negotiations for a political solution.”

Both Islamic State and its one-time ally-turned-nemesis, the Front for the Conquest of Syria (the Al Qaeda affiliate formerly known as the Nusra Front), are excluded from the agreement, according to a Syrian army statement. 

The pact also excludes other groups the United Nations has listed as terrorist organizations. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that any group that does not join the cease-fire will be seen as a terrorist organization.

Although the outgoing administration of President Obama was not part of the deal, Russia said it would welcome the participation of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet after he is sworn in.

“I would like to express hope that as soon as Donald Trump’s administration takes office, they will also be able to join these efforts [to settle the Syrian crisis] so that we could jointly work in this direction,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

Lavrov also said Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar would be invited to join the talks.

The Syrian government, in a statement, welcomed the truce, saying it “hopes that the implementation of the agreement will save civilian lives, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance across Syria, and pave the way for productive talks in Astana.”

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The cease-fire comes a week after the Syrian government announced that it finally had regained control of the key city Aleppo. Parts of the city had been under rebel control for nearly four years, and its fall is viewed as a major turning point in the multisided war.

Several previous attempts at a cease-fire in Syria have failed to stop the bloodshed that already has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions during the five-year-old conflict.

Previous U.S.- and Russian-brokered attempts at a cessation of hostilities collapsed into recriminations between the belligerents and their international backers, with the U.S. accusing Russia and loyalist forces of targeting so-called moderate rebels, which include the Western-backed forces of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA.

Russia countered that Washington never had been able to delineate areas of the Nusra Front’s control, and that moderate rebels had continued to work with jihadists in operations against government forces.

Malahifji said that any issues relating to the Nusra Front would be delayed until negotiations had begun.

Yet Usama Abu Zaid, a spokesman for the FSA and a member of the opposition delegation involved in the negotiations, said in a tweet Thursday that no group had been excluded except for Islamic State. 

Experts doubt the new cease-fire will last.

“The truce is a palliative,” Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert with Carnegie Moscow, a think tank, said in an interview. “This is the second time Putin announces a cease-fire, and the first time, it all fell apart.

“The truce is very, very fragile, and let’s wait for at least a month [to see] whether the truce will turn into peace,” he said.

The new cease-fire, however, does show that Russia and Turkey have ironed out some differences over the Syrian conflict.

Since the beginning of Syria’s civil conflict in 2011, Russia threw its political weight to support Assad’s regime. Last year, it saved the government from collapsing by launching massive airstrikes that helped Damascus regain key areas, including Aleppo.

Meanwhile, Turkey backed a number of opposition groups and provoked a months-long diplomatic spat with Moscow by shooting down a Russian jet that violated Turkish airspace.

Mirovalev and Bulos are special correspondents. Mirovalev reported from Moscow and Bulos from Amman, Jordan.

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UPDATES:

2 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Zakaria Malahifji and Usama Abu Zaid.

9:10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional background on the Syrian conflict and comments from Russian officials.

This article was originally published at 6:45 a.m.

A quote attributed to the Syrian government actually came from Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy to Syria. De Mistura welcomed the truce between the Syrian government and rebel groups, saying he “hopes that the implementation of the agreement will save civilian lives, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance across Syria, and pave the way for productive talks in Astana.
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