Fighting Stops in Syria as Cease Fire Begins to take Hold
SYRIA – Fighting mostly ceased across western and northern Syria on Saturday and Russia halted its air raids, under a temporary cease-fire which the United Nations called the best hope for peace since civil war began five years ago.
Under the U.S.-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.
Russia, which says it intends to continue strikes against areas held by Islamist fighters that are not covered by the truce, said it would suspend all flights over Syria for the day on Saturday to ensure no wrong targets were hit by mistake.
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.
The truce is the culmination of new diplomatic efforts that reflect a battlefield dramatically changed since Russia joined the war in September with air strikes to prop up Assad. Moscow’s intervention effectively destroyed the hope his enemies have maintained for five years — encouraged by Arab and Western states — to topple him by force.
The agreement is the first of its kind to be attempted in four years and, if it holds, would be the most successful truce of the war so far.
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 jihadist groups such as Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria.
“Let’s pray that this works because frankly this is the best opportunity we can imagine the Syrian people has had for the last five years in order to see something better and hopefully something related to peace,” U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said at a midnight news conference in Geneva.
He said he expected occasional breaches of the agreement but called on the parties to show restraint and curb escalation.
Several insurgents in the western and northern part of the country said early on Saturday that it was mainly quiet so far.
Nevertheless, Fares Bayoush, head of the Fursan al-Haqq rebel group which fights under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters that continuing violations could lead to the “collapse of 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.”
A rebel fighter said government forces briefly fired artillery at a village in Aleppo province, which he said was under the control of the Levant Front, another group under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army which has backed the truce.
On Friday the United Nations mediator, Staffan de Mistura, said he hoped the pause could allow desperately needed food and medicine to get into towns under siege for months and, if the truce holds, pave the way for political negotiations to resume on March 7.
“It is, potentially, a historic junction — to bring an end to the killing and destruction and to start a new life and new hope for the Syrians,” Mr. de Mistura said.
That is the optimistic view. The more pessimistic one is that the cessation becomes what the French ambassador to the United Nations, François Delattre, called “a smoke screen allowing someone to crush the Syrian civilians and the opposition.” – Reuters
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