Brokered truce in Syria holds but clashes reported

Life has returned to some semblance of normality in war-torn Aleppo, once a bastion of Syria's rebels. The new ceasefire paves the way for peace talks intended to take place in Kazakhstan.
Life has returned to some semblance of normality in war-torn Aleppo, once a bastion of Syria's rebels. The new ceasefire paves the way for peace talks intended to take place in Kazakhstan.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

BEIRUT • A ceasefire backed by Russia and Turkey, aimed at ending nearly six years of war in Syria and starting peace talks, appeared to hold yesterday, but was tarnished by clashes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, announced the ceasefire on Thursday after forging the agreement with Turkey, a long- time backer of the opposition.

A monitoring group and rebel officials reported clashes almost immediately after midnight on Thursday between insurgents and government forces along the provincial boundary between Idlib and Hama, and isolated incidents of gunfire farther south.

Less than 12 hours later, Syrian government forces and their allies clashed with rebels in a strategic valley north-west of Damascus, and helicopter gunships carried out air raids in the area, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Government warplanes then carried out air strikes in northern Hama, the monitor group said.

Calm still prevailed in many areas included in the deal, the Observatory and rebel officials said, but the fighting highlighted the fragility of any truce agreement in a country where repeated international efforts towards peace have failed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States could join a fresh peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan 20. He also wanted Egypt to join, together with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and the United Nations.

A number of rebel groups have signed the agreement, Russia's Defence Ministry said. Several rebel officials acknowledged the deal, and a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose alliance of insurgent groups, said it would abide by the truce.

One FSA commander was optimistic about the truce deal, the third serious attempt at a nationwide ceasefire this year.

"This time, I have confidence in its seriousness. There is new international input," Colonel Fares al-Bayoush said without elaborating.

Syria's civil war, which began when a peaceful uprising descended into violence in 2011, has resulted in more than 300,000 deaths and displaced more than 11 million people, half the country's pre-war population.

The ceasefire, in the waning days of US President Barack Obama's administration, is the first major international diplomatic initiative in the Middle East in decades not to involve the US.

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.

Mr Putin said the parties were also prepared to start peace talks intended to take place in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Syrian state media said those talks would take place soon.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'Brokered truce in Syria holds but clashes reported'. Print Edition | Subscribe