Syrian opposition agrees to UN talks as ceasefire holds

Rebel fighters in a village in Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday - the "calmest day" in Syria since the ceasefire began on Feb 27, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Rebel fighters in a village in Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday - the "calmest day" in Syria since the ceasefire began on Feb 27, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.PHOTO: REUTERS

Truce between Assad forces and rebels leads to first significant drop in violence in 5 years

BEIRUT • Syria's opposition has agreed to attend a new round of United Nations-sponsored peace talks set for this week in Geneva after a landmark ceasefire led to a dramatic drop in fighting.

The truce between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and non-Islamist rebels, brokered by Russia and the United States, has defied expectations and led to the first significant decline in violence in Syria's nearly five-year civil war.

The UN hopes it can now restart talks on a political transition which collapsed last month in Geneva. The opposition, represented by the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee, had held off on committing to the talks, but yesterday said the 10-day-old "cessation of hostilities" was making a difference.

"After consultations, the High Negotiations Committee agreed to go to Geneva. The delegation is expected to arrive on Friday," the group's spokesman Riad Naasan Agha said, adding it has noticed "a sharp decline in ceasefire violations in recent days and progress in the humanitarian file", particularly with aid deliveries to besieged towns.

The ceasefire agreed on Feb 27 is part of the biggest diplomatic effort yet to resolve Syria's conflict, which has killed over 270,000 people and forced millions from their homes. Moscow backs Mr Assad and Washington supports the opposition - but the two powers have made a concerted push for the truce and further peace efforts to succeed.

Observers say the partial truce, which does not apply to extremists from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) or the Al-Nusra Front, has largely held despite widespread scepticism before it took effect.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said Sunday was the "calmest day" in Syria since the ceasefire began.

Its chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the average number of civilian deaths a day had fallen by 90 per cent since the ceasefire came into force, with an 80 per cent decline among soldiers and rebel forces.

Moscow, which has given a daily account of ceasefire violations, said yesterday the truce was still "in general" holding apart from "isolated provocations and shelling".

It said Russian planes continue to carry out air strikes against ISIS and Al- Nusra in three provinces, including the main ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

Russia launched an air campaign in September that it says is targeting "terrorists", but has been accused of hitting non-Islamist rebels in its support of Mr Assad's forces. A US-led coalition has also been carrying out air strikes since September 2014 against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said the Geneva talks will resume on Thursday, but many delegates are not expected to arrive until days later.

A plan agreed by world powers last year calls for a ceasefire, the creation of a transitional body, a new Constitution and fresh elections. The main sticking point has been the fate of Mr Assad, who the opposition insists must step down for a transition to work.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'Syrian opposition agrees to UN talks as ceasefire holds'. Print Edition | Subscribe