Syria conflict: Russia-Turkey brokered truce holding despite clashes

Aleppo, 23 DecImage copyright

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The deal follows the Syrian army’s successful operation to retake Aleppo

A new nationwide ceasefire between Syrian government forces and rebel groups appears to be largely holding.

However isolated clashes have been reported since the truce, brokered by Russia and Turkey, went into effect at midnight (22:00 GMT) on Thursday.

The deal includes many rebel groups but not jihadists such as so-called Islamic State, or the Kurdish YPG.

If it holds, despite some isolated clashes, peace talks are due to be held in Kazakhstan within a month.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group, said most of the country was calm overnight. But it reported “fierce clashes” between rebels and government forces in the northern province of Hama.

SOHR director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP news agency: “Small rebel groups and armed loyalists are seeking to destroy the truce because it puts an end to their presence.”

Residents in the area of Ghouta in eastern Damascus also said they heard gunfire less than two hours after the ceasefire took effect. Other isolated incidents were reported in Idlib, in north-western Syria.

At least 300,000 people are believed to have been killed in fighting that followed the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

Four million have sought refuge in neighbouring states or Europe.

Russia takes centre stage – Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic correspondent

If the fall of Aleppo to government forces demonstrated that Russia and its Syrian allies now hold the military initiative, then this new cease-fire deal suggests that Moscow has a good measure of the diplomatic momentum as well.

Unlike previous ceasefires, this has not come out of US and Russian bilateral spadework, but from a new understanding between Moscow and Ankara.

But this new agreement relates to only one of Syria’s conflicts. It does not encompass IS or the main rebel grouping linked to al-Qaeda. Even President Putin describes the deal as fragile.

The real question may be where the Russian-Iranian military effort will focus next. The deal nonetheless marks a transitional moment in the conflict, with the US tacitly acknowledging failure in Syria and Turkey signalling to the rebels that it is Ankara’s strategic interests that now take precedence.

Will the ceasefire hold?

The diplomatic noises are encouraging, and even the rebel groups involved have suggested it could succeed.

However, previous ceasefire initiatives this year quickly collapsed.

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Bashar al-Assad is committed to the deal, Russia says

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said there was “a real chance to reach a political settlement to end the bloodshed and establish the future of the country”.

The fact that the rebels have been losing ground may help.

The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the umbrella group representing Syria’s political and armed opposition factions, admitted on Thursday that because of the rebels’ limited resources, it was “not possible to continue” the fight.

Who is included in the deal?

On the one side, Syrian government forces, allied factions and the Russian military.

On the other, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose alliance of moderate rebel factions, plus other groups under the HNC.

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Rebel fighters in al-Rai, in northern Aleppo province

The Russian defence ministry listed seven of the main rebel groups included in the truce as Faylaq al-Sham; Ahrar al-Sham; Jaysh al-Islam; Thuwwar Ahl al-Sham; Jaysh al-Mujahidin; Jaysh Idlib and al-Jabhah al-Shamiyah.

Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) are the key names, neither of them part of the FSA.

However, reflecting the confusion of the Syrian conflict, Reuters later quoted one spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham as saying that the group had reservations and had not signed the deal.

Who is not included?

Jihadists. So-called Islamic State (IS) “and the groups affiliated to them” are not part of the agreement, Syria’s army confirmed.

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What will happen to Kurdish YPG fighters?

It also said Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) was excluded. However, some rebel officials told Reuters it was included in the deal, giving a hint of the complications that lie ahead.

This is because JFS is intrinsically linked, in Idlib province, to groups that have signed up to the truce.

The FSA also said that the deal did not include the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG, along with other Kurdish militias, controls a large area of northern Syria up the Turkish border. It is regarded by Turkey as a terrorist organisation.

What are the terms of the deal and where does it cover?

It is nominally nationwide, although that really only covers the areas where the sides who have signed up to the truce have a presence.

Looking at the map, there are large swathes under both jihadist and Kurdish control.

One area that is included is the rebel-held area of Ghouta in eastern Damascus, where government forces have been advancing in recent months.

Under the terms of the deal, the peace talks would begin within a month of the ceasefire taking effect – and holding – and would be held in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.

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The eastern suburbs of Damascus are included in the ceasefire deal

Are Turkey and Russia now allies?

On 24 November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on its border with Syria and a big diplomatic freeze ensued.

But tough Russian economic sanctions – and Turkey’s increasing frustration with its Nato allies – led to a gradual thawing over 2016.

Media captionTurkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet in 2015 froze relations

Turkey even turned a blind eye to the advance of Syrian forces on Aleppo, and now the pair have brokered a truce.

Still, problems remain. The sides have not spelled out jointly which rebel groups they believe are involved in the truce.

Turkey also says foreign fighter groups, including Hezbollah, need to leave Syria. This will not sit well with Iran, a major backer of the Assad government.

And it is unclear whether Ankara is prepared to give up on its long-term goal of ousting Mr Assad.