Fragile calm in Syria as ceasefire begins

Peace talks to resume soon if the truce holds and more aid is delivered, says UN envoy

BEIRUT • A rare calm prevailed across much of Syria yesterday as the first major ceasefire of the five- year war took hold and an international task force prepared to begin monitoring the landmark truce.

"Honestly, I was surprised that the calm lasted through the night," said Mr Ammar al-Rai, a 22-year- old medical student in Damascus. "I think this is the first time we've woken up without the sound of shelling," he said.

Under the US-Russian accord accepted by President Bashar al- Assad's government and many of his enemies, fighting should cease so aid can reach civilians and talks can open to end a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and made 11 million homeless.

United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said he expected occasional breaches of the agreement, but called on the parties to show restraint and curb escalation.

Mr de Mistura said peace talks would resume on March 7 if the truce holds and more aid is delivered - a key sticking point in negotiations. The special task force on Syria was due to meet in Geneva yesterday at 2pm GMT (10pm Singapore time) to oversee developments.

WAKING UP TO PEACE

I think this is the first time we've woken up without the sound of shelling.

MR AMMAR AL-RAI, a 22-year-old medical student in Damascus

Russia, which says it intends to continue strikes against areas that are not covered by the truce, said it would suspend all flights over Syria for a day to ensure no wrong targets were hit by mistake.

But there are weak spots in a fragile deal which has not been directly signed by the Syrian warring parties and is less binding than a formal ceasefire. Importantly, it does not cover powerful Islamist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria.

A Syrian rebel commander said government shelling had stopped in some parts of Syria but continued elsewhere in what he described as a violation that could wreck the agreement.

"There are areas where the bombardment has stopped, but there are areas where there are violations by the regime such as Kafr Zeita in Hama, via targeting with artillery, and likewise in Morek in northern Hama countryside," said Mr Fares Bayoush, the head of the Fursan al-Haqq rebel group, which fights under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

Another rebel fighter said government forces briefly fired artillery at a village in Aleppo province under the control of another Free Syrian Army-affiliated group.

Amid the relative calm, twin suicide bombings killed six people outside the town of Salamiyeh in Hama province. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attacks were carried out by ISIS.

Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said ISIS fighters had attacked Tal Abyad, a town near the Turkish border. The US-led coalition targeted the town with air strikes in an attempt to push back ISIS, according to the Observatory.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Fragile calm in Syria as ceasefire begins'. Print Edition | Subscribe