Syria Truce Brokered as Russia, Turkey Grab Initiative From U.S.Stepan Kravchenko, Henry Meyer, Taylan Bilgic and Dana Khraiche
Cease-fire in civil war takes effect at midnight, Russia says
Russian-Turkish effort comes after U.S.-backed plans failed
Russia and Turkey announced they’ve brokered a cease-fire agreement in Syria that they hope will pave the way to a peace settlement ending the nation’s civil war, seizing the initiative from the U.S. after years of failed diplomacy.
“A very great deal of work was done together with our partners from Turkey,” President Vladimir Putin said at a televised meeting Thursday with his foreign and defense ministers. The accord is something we’ve “been waiting a long time for,” he said.
The deal sidelines the U.S., which had led peace efforts without success for years, most recently when a similar cease-fire negotiated with Russia collapsed after only a week in September. Russia said the U.S. may join the accord once Donald Trump takes office as president in January. Russia stepped up its diplomatic campaign after its forces helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to defeat rebel fighters in the country’s largest city, Aleppo, this month in a turning point in the war.
While calling the cease-fire accord “a positive development,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement that “an inclusive Syrian-led political process between the Syrian regime and the opposition is critical for establishing a durable settlement to this conflict.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina took a sharper tone, writing on Twitter, “I fear what is being hailed as a cease-fire in Syria will become a capitulation to Russia and Iran.”
The cease-fire, due to take effect at midnight, covers 62,000 rebel fighters from major armed groups as well as Syrian government forces and their allies, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. It marks the most ambitious step yet in a Russian-Turkish bid to resolve the conflict that has killed more than 300,000 people, unleashed the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II and stirred a global jihadist threat. Russia and Turkey will monitor the truce via a special military hotline.
The Russian-Turkish accord, which excludes Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria because the United Nations Security Council has declared them terrorist organizations, was signed by seven Islamist groups including Ahrar Al Sham and the Army of Islam that are concentrated in central and northern Syria, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.
The Syrian army said it would observe a nationwide truce as of midnight. “The cease-fire is a real opportunity to reach a political settlement of the crisis in Syria and to end the bloodshed,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said, according to state television.
Major rebel groups also confirmed their participation. “Factions who are with us will comply with the cease-fire,” Riad Hassan Agha, a spokesman for the Saudi-supported High Committee for Negotiations, said by phone.
The U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army will abide by the truce, according to an e-mailed statement from the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Nasr Al-Hariri, a coalition spokesman, said his group signed the agreement and all opposition forces are committed to the truce. He told Al Jazeera TV that he “hoped this will pave the way for a new political phase” despite “very bad experiences” with previous cease-fire agreements.
“Turkey and Russia strongly support the cease-fire and will monitor it together,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in an e-mailed statement. Turkey has been a major backer of rebel forces seeking to overthrow Assad but reduced its support as Russia’s military intervention succeeded in bolstering the Syrian leader.
Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone about the truce and upcoming peace talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, the Kremlin said.
In addition to the cease-fire, documents on monitoring the truce and on a willingness to start the negotiations on a political settlement were also signed, Putin said. Russia is ready to reduce its military presence in Syria once the agreement takes effect, Shoigu said.
Russia is urging international support for the cease-fire, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, adding that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and Jordan will be invited to endorse the agreement soon.
“I would also like to express the hope that when the administration of Donald Trump takes office, that they could also join in these efforts so we could work in the same direction in a friendly and collaborative manner,” Lavrov said.
Still, the risks are high that this latest cease-fire will fail like all previous efforts, with conflicting interests at play even between supposed allies like Russia and Syria, said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a Middle East expert at Russia’s Institute of Oriental Studies.
“There will be attempts to prevent this from taking effect by local players,” Zvyagelskaya said. Russia’s “goal is to bring a resolution to this, not to fight to the victorious end, but Assad might be of the view that he can win.”