Syria's Cease-Fire Takes Hold as Russia Halts Airstrikes

  • Russia's Lavrov cites `serious reasons' for optimism on accord
  • It's `put-up or shut-up time' for Russia, says U.S. spokesman

Russia said on Saturday it has halted airstrikes in parts of Syria where armed groups pledged to abide by a partial cease-fire in the war-ravaged country.

Fighting has stopped in more than 30 areas, according to Sergei Rudskoy, head of the Defense Ministry’s Operative Directorate. Russian authorities also gave the U.S. a list of armed groups that have agreed to the cease-fire.

The “cessation of hostilities” went into effect at 12:01 a.m. local time on Saturday amid uncertainty over whether it would take hold and how to judge its success. No one had predicted that all guns would fall silent after five years of a war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people and created a refugee crisis straining Europe’s borders.

Russia has taken “the first step,” to implement the agreement, Rudskoy told reporters in Moscow on Saturday. All parties are expected to exert their “maximum efforts” to bring about peace, he said.

What started as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has turned into one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the Middle East and a battleground for proxy wars between regional and global powers. Underlining the fragility of the deal, Al Jazeera television said Syrian regime forces continued to shell rebel areas in the Damascus suburb of al-Marj and the city of Daraa.

Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum in Moscow on Feb. 26

Photographer: Dai Tianfang/Xinhua via Getty Images

‘Serious Reasons’

“Of course, nobody can give a 100 percent guarantee,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday at a Moscow news conference with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi. “But there are very serious reasons for this positive development to be consolidated and made sustainable.”

Daily efforts will be required to enforce the agreement on the ground, and in the meantime strict controls should be in effect on Syria’s borders to prevent foreign fighters crossing into the country, Lavrov said.

The partial truce was announced by the U.S. and Russia on Feb. 22. Assad’s government agreed to the proposal, and armed opposition groups Friday confirmed their participation.

Syrian Opposition

The Free Syrian Army and 97 armed factions are willing to abide by the cease-fire, Syria’s main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, said in a statement on Twitter. The “cessation of hostilities” agreement excludes Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, allowing Russia and a U.S.-led coalition to continue airstrikes against them.

Staffan De Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, told the UN Security Council Friday that he plans to resume stalled peace talks on March 7 if the cease-fire “largely holds,” according to the Associated Press, which reported that the council unanimously approved a resolution endorsing the agreement. The U.S. has said Assad eventually must step down as part of a transition.

‘Put-Up or Shut-Up’

Now “it’s put-up or shut-up time” for Russia to show it’s serious about making the partial cease-fire work, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington on Friday.

“The Russians have committed themselves to not carrying out strikes against groups that we consider part of the moderate opposition,” Toner said. The U.S. has said Russian airstrikes that began in September to shore up Assad’s regime have largely targeted such groups rather than Islamic State terrorists.

Enforcing the cease-fire has become even more urgent given concerns that Turkey and Saudi Arabia will become more heavily engaged in the war. While Russia and Iran are backing Assad, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are part of a U.S.-led coalition supporting various rebel groups, including some that the Syrians and their allies consider radical Islamists.

Lengthy Process

The peace process will be lengthy and contradictory, and the U.S. shouldn’t forget that terrorist groups other than Islamic State operate in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday at a meeting with Federal Security Service officials, according to the Interfax news service.

While there are “plenty of reasons for skepticism,” the Syria cease-fire could save lives and lead regional powers to “reflect and assess” how to help end the war, U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday after a meeting with his national security advisers. He directed his team to “continue intensifying efforts” against Islamic State and said there’ll “be absolutely no cease-fire in our fight” against the group.

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