DAMASCUS, Feb 24, (AFP): Pressure was building on Syria’s warring sides Wednesday to abide by a partial ceasefire brokered by Moscow and Washington that is due to take effect this weekend. Russia and the United States have set a deadline of midnight Damascus time (2200 GMT) Friday for the “cessation of hostilities” between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and non jihadist rebel forces. The deal — which excludes the Islamic State group and other extremists — marks the biggest diplomatic push yet to help end Syria’s violence, but it has been plagued by doubts after the failure of previous peace efforts.
Russia and the United States are on opposing sides of the conflict, with Moscow backing Assad and Washington supporting the opposition, but the two powers have been making a concerted push for the ceasefire to be respected. The Kremlin said Wednesday that Assad had assured President Vladimir Putin of his government’s readiness to abide by the deal. The two leaders discussed the agreement in a phone call, the Kremlin said, and Assad noted that the proposals were an “important step in the direction of a political settlement”. “In particular, (Assad) confirmed the readiness of the Syrian government to facilitate the establishment of a ceasefire,” it said in a statement. Putin and Assad “stressed the importance of continuing an uncompromising fight” against IS, Al-Nusra Front and “other terrorist groups,” the Kremlin said.
The agreement allows military action to continue against IS, which seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front and other jihadist groups. A US-led coalition has been carrying out air raids against IS in Syria and Iraq since the summer of 2014 and Russia launched its own strikes against “terrorists” last September. Putin also spoke to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, explaining “in detail the essence” of the US-Russian proposals, the Kremlin said. Saudi Arabia is a key member of the US-led coalition and has long supported forces opposed to Assad. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin was set to have a series of phone calls on Syria on Wednesday. “Very intense contacts are underway,” he said.
The Russian defence ministry said it was in talks with rebel groups in five Syrian provinces — Hama, Homs, Latakia, Damascus and Deraa — on implementing the deal. Russia and Iran are Assad’s key international backers, with Moscow accused of using its air strikes to support regime advances and Tehran deploying military advisors and volunteers to fight with government troops. Tehran also expressed faith that its ally would stand by the deal. “We have confidence in the commitment of the Syrian government to respect the ceasefire, but it is unclear whether armed groups linked to known terrorist groups will respect it,” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted as saying by official news agency IRNA.
Syria’s leading opposition umbrella group — the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee — accepted the deal on Monday on the condition the regime and its backers lift sieges, release prisoners, stop bombing civilians and allow humanitarian aid. Washington called on the widest range of opposition groups to get behind the ceasefire. “We urge the maximum number of armed opposition factions to express their support and readiness to participate in the cessation,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. The ceasefire plan was announced by top diplomats in Munich earlier this month, but failed to take hold last week as initially planned.
It has led to an increase in foreign aid, with UN convoys delivering assistance last week. The UN said it had carried out its first humanitarian airdrop to civilians on Wednesday, with 21 tonnes of assistance delivered to residents of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, where regime-held areas are besieged by IS. US Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the United States was considering a “Plan B” if the ceasefire effort fails, but did not provide further details. The complexities of Syria’s battlefields — where moderate rebels often fight alongside jihadist groups like al- Qaeda — have cast serious doubt on whether the ceasefire effort will succeed. Adding to the difficulties, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that Syrian Kurdish militia forces must remain outside the scope of a ceasefire. Erdogan said Turkey welcomed the ceasefire as “positive in principle” but said the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) should be excluded.
“If DAESH (IS) and Al-Nusra are kept outside the ceasefi re, then the PYDYPG must similarly be excluded from the ceasefi re for it is a terrorist group just as they are,” Erdogan told local offi cials in Ankara. Turkey says the YPG is a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state, and has repeatedly shelled Kurdish militia positions inside Syria. Recent gains by US-backed fi ghters battling the Islamic State group in northeastern Syria are paving the way for an assault on Raqa, the jihadists’ de facto Syrian capital, a US offi cial said Wednesday. A Kurdish-led alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have encircled the town of Al-Shadadi in Hasakeh province in recent days. The fi ghters have enjoyed broad support from a US-led coalition conducting air strikes on IS targets.
“There’s still work to be done and we expect ISIL fighters to put up a fi ght, but we expect Shadadi to be liberated in the very near future,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said, using an alternative acronym for the IS group. Davis said the recapture of Al-Shadadi would be followed “in the very near future” by anti-IS forces encircling Raqa, ahead of an assault on the city. “The momentum is moving (to Raqa), and the momentum currently is in Shadadi,” Davis said. He declined to speculate on a timeline for a Raqa push. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said last week that the SDF were in control of Al-Shadadi, but were still engaged in “mopping up” operations outside the town. The United States has highlighted Raqa, and the Iraqi city of Mosul, as key targets in the anti-IS fight.
IS forces seized Raqa in early 2014 and declared it the capital of their so called caliphate. In June the same year, the jihadists seized Mosul. Rather than sending large deployments of US forces into Iraq and Syria to fi ght the IS group, the United States has focused on training and assisting local fi ghters, saying they are best able to sustain a lasting defeat of the jihadist group. Since August 2014, the US-led coalition has pounded IS targets in Iraq and Syria. The jihadists have lost considerable ground in those two countries but expanded their presence in Libya.