Syrian regime signs truce deal with rebels guaranteed by Russia, says President Putin

In response to the deal, Mr Putin says Russia will begin a 'reduction of our military presence' in Syria

Peter Walker
Thursday 29 December 2016 12:26
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Vladimir Putin announces ceasefire agreement in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced the signing of a truce deal between the Syrian regime and opposition groups.

The ceasefire agreement, to begin from midnight and guaranteed by Russia and Turkey’s governments, will be followed by peace talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and seven major armed opposition groups.

The negotiations, however, exclude United Nations-recognised terrorist groups, such as Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, and Mr Putin said he will continue “fighting international terrorism in Syria” and supporting Mr Assad’s military.

“The agreements reached are, of course, fragile, and need a special attention and involvement,” said Mr Putin. “But after all, this is a notable result of our joint work, efforts by the defence and foreign ministries and our partners in the regions.”

The Syrian state news agency SANA followed with confirmation, and an army statement said: “The general command of the armed forces announces a complete halt to all hostilities on Syrian territory from the zero hour of 30 December.”

It said the ceasefire comes after the “successes achieved by the armed forces” in a thinly veiled reference to the capture and evacuation of besieged Aleppo earlier this month.

A spokesman for one of the main opposition groups, the Syrian National Coalition, said: “The National Coalition expresses support for the agreement and urges all parties to abide by it.” However, he added that the group would respond to any ceasefire violations.

Several rebel officials told Reuters they had agreed to the ceasefire plan, but there was uncertainty over which groups were included in the deal.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the truce will include 62,000 rebel fighters across the country.

“I agree with the proposal from the defence ministry for the reduction of our military presence in Syria,” Mr Putin said.

The Russian military will maintain a presence at an air base in Syria’s Latakia province and in the port of Tartus, the Russian president added.

The Russian military has reportedly set up a hotline with its Turkish counterparts to monitor compliance.

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The United Nations Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has since welcomed the ceasefire announcement and said he hopes it "will save civilian lives, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance across Syria, and pave the way for productive talks in Astana"

"The Special Envoy welcomes the announcement of a nationwide ceasefire between the government of Syria and armed opposition groups in Syria," said de Mistura, who also said these "developments" should contribute to official UN negotiations on 8 February, 2017.

Talks on a ceasefire picked up momentum after Russia, Iran and Turkey last week said they were ready to back a deal and adopted a declaration setting out principles that any agreement should adhere to.

The United States has been sidelined in recent negotiations and is not due to attend the next round of peace talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, a key Russian ally. These talks have been described by Russia as a “complement” to UN-backed talks in Geneva that are due to reconvene in February.

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

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the United States could join the peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

Talks towards a ceasefire to end the conflict reflect the complexity of Syria's civil war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on all sides.

The deal by Turkey and Russia to act as guarantors in the war comes despite their support of different sides in the civil war. Ankara has insisted on the departure of Mr Assad, who is backed by Russia.

Likewise, demands that troops from Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah leave Syria may not sit well with Iran, another major supporter of Mr Assad. Hezbollah troops have been fighting alongside Syrian government forces against rebels opposed to Mr Assad.

“All foreign fighters need to leave Syria. Hezbollah needs to return to Lebanon,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.

Sources have told Reuters that, under an outline deal, Syria could be divided into informal zones of regional power and Mr Assad would remain president for at least a few years.

There are also more immediate hurdles. Syrian rebel groups were due to hold talks with Turkish officials in Ankara on Thursday.

A senior rebel official told Reuters this week that the groups were discussing, with Turkey, the ceasefire proposal being negotiated with Russia.

They had rejected Moscow's demand to exclude a rebel stronghold near the capital from any deal, said Munir al Sayal, the head of the political wing of Ahrar al Sham, whose group is involved in talks with Turkey.

Ankara supports the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose alliance of rebel groups, some of which it is backing in operations in northern Syria designed to sweep Isis and Syrian Kurdish fighters from its southern border.

The United States is backing the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the fight against Isis in Syria, a move that has infuriated Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara fears that advances by Kurdish fighters in Syria could inflame militants at home.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the United States of supporting terrorism in Syria, including Isis, comments that Washington has dismissed as “ludicrous”.

“We, as Turkey, have been calling to Western nations for some time to not distinguish between terrorist organisations and to be principled and consistent in their stance,” Mr Erdogan said in a speech on Thursday.

“Some countries, namely the United States, have come up with some excuses on their own and overtly supported the organisations that massacre innocent people in our region. When we voice these, these gentlemen are bothered by it.”

Agencies contributed to this report

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