Clashes test fragile truce in Syria

Candles arranged in the shape of the Syrian map surround a picture of President Bashar al-Assad during a vigil for peace at the Umayyad Square in Damascus. The vigil was held last Friday. A nationwide truce has been threatened by continued fighting i
Candles arranged in the shape of the Syrian map surround a picture of President Bashar al-Assad during a vigil for peace at the Umayyad Square in Damascus. The vigil was held last Friday. A nationwide truce has been threatened by continued fighting in parts of Syria.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

BEIRUT • Fighting in parts of Syria yesterday threatened a shaky ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey, whose efforts to kickstart talks towards ending the conflict won backing from world powers.

The nationwide truce between the regime and rebels aims to smooth the way for peace talks in Kazakhstan later this month orchestrated by Damascus's allies Moscow and Teheran and rebel backer Ankara.

The truce excludes the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front.

The UN Security Council last Saturday unanimously approved a resolution supporting the Russian and Turkish initiative aimed at ending the nearly six-year-old war that has killed more than 310,000 and displaced millions.

Air raids and clashes have continued to shake parts of the country since the ceasefire started at midnight last Thursday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war.

Four civilians and nine rebels have been killed since the truce took effect, according to the group, which relies on a network of sources in Syria for its information.

The air strikes and fighting "are unlikely to lead to the ceasefire collapsing, but they are violations of the deal", Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

In northern Syria, regime air strikes yesterday targeted the rebel-held town of Atareb, the monitor said.

Last Saturday night, rebels shelled Fuaa and Kafraya, two besieged Shi'ite-majority villages in north-western Syria.

Outside Damascus, the Observatory reported exchanges of fire between the regime and rebels in Eastern Ghouta, where President Bashar al-Assad's forces have waged a months-long offensive to retake an opposition bastion.

Last Saturday's UN resolution "welcomes and supports the efforts by Russia and Turkey to end violence in Syria and jump-start a political process" and labels the planned talks in the Kazakh capital Astana as "an important step".

The measure also calls for the "rapid, safe and unhindered" delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria.

In Eastern Ghouta's Hammuriyeh area, Syrian activists marked the New Year by decorating a tree with lights and pictures of the war's victims over last year, an AFP photographer said. The Observatory says a total of 60,000 people lost their lives in violence across Syria last year. More than 13,000 of them were civilians.

Syria's conflict began in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests and has since spiralled into a multi-front war involving various sides and international players.

Russia and Turkey say the Astana talks later this month will supplement, not replace, UN-backed peace efforts, including negotiations on Feb 8 in Geneva.

Moscow and Ankara have been working increasingly closely on Syria. They are cooperating on a deal to allow the evacuation of civilians and rebels from the besieged northern city of Aleppo.

The fighting in Syria has occasionally spilled over into neighbouring Turkey, with several attacks blamed on ISIS or Kurdish militants.

Washington has been conspicuously absent from the new process to end the Syrian conflict but has called the truce "positive". Moscow has said it hoped to bring US President-elect Donald Trump's administration on board once he takes office in January.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2017, with the headline 'Clashes test fragile truce in Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe