Sunday, December 17, 2017

Syria cease-fire deal could hasten end to long civil war

Russia and Turkey have announced they will work to begin peace talks between the Syrian government and rebel fighters to stop the country’s nearly 6-year-old civil war.
USA TODAY NETWORK

Syria’s military announced that it has agreed to a national cease-fire backed by Russia and Turkey effective at midnight Thursday, a move that could prompt a political settlement of a nearly 6-year-old civil war and a dramatic shift in U.S. policy under a Donald Trump presidency.

The cease-fire does not cover the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria.

A member of one of Syria’s main rebel groups said the truce includes a halt to airstrikes and shelling. Ahmad Ramadan of the Syrian National Coalition told the Associated Press that rebel factions would abide by the truce but retaliate to violations by the government and its partners.

If it holds, the halt to hostilities between the regime of President Bashar Assad and rebels, who have been losing ground in recent months, presents a major change as President-elect Trump prepares to assume office in three weeks.

Trump, who is critical of President Obama’s handling of the war and U.S. backing of rebel groups battling Assad, has suggested that Russia and Assad could be U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

By contrast, Obama wants Assad to step down because of atrocities his regime has committed against the Syrian people, including chemical weapons. Obama also has refused to coordinate military strategy with Russia in Syria, where a U.S.-led coalition is targeting the Islamic State and Russian jets are targeting all opponents of Moscow’s close ally, Assad.

“Russia and Turkey are trying to put something in place before the new administration takes office,” said Robert Pearson, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey now at the Middle East Institute. “It will be a kind of fait accompli with the Trump administration.”

Previous cease-fires have failed. Hundreds of groups are fighting inside Syria and a long-term solution would require cooperation from countries that have vested interests in the war’s outcome, including Iran, which is aligned with Assad, and Saudi Arabia, which wants Assad deposed to reduce the influence of its enemy, Iran.

“The agreements reached are very fragile, they demand special attention and patience, a professional approach to these issues and a constant contact with our partners,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said.

Putin did not specify which rebel groups would participate in the truce, but Russia’s defense ministry said they would represent 62,000 opposition fighters from across Syria.

Putin said the deal emerged from meetings held in Moscow with foreign ministers from Russia, Turkey and Iran. The Turkish government opposes the Assad regime but worries his ouster might embolden Kurdish rebels in Syria to unite with Kurds in neighboring Iraq and Turkey to create an independent enclave.

The agreement may have a better chance than previous deals because it comes amid a shift in conditions on the ground that has placed Assad in a stronger position.

Syrian’s Russian-backed military this month drove rebel groups out of Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, in a major defeat for opposition forces. Assad already controls Damascus, the capital.

“Now Assad controls the two most important cities in the country,” Pearson said. “Rebels suffered a catastrophic defeat.”

The fall of Aleppo was also a humanitarian crisis that killed hundreds of civilians and sent others fleeing.The cease-fire “is built on a horrific massacre,” Pearson said.

If the cease-fire holds, peace talks will take place in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana.

It is not clear what Assad’s political future would be, but what is clear is that the agreement marginalizes the U.S., which had played a major role in earlier U.N.-brokered efforts to bring peace to the region.

“The only certainty is American influence is dead,” said Michael Rubin, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Still, the cease-fire agreement won’t have an immediate impact on the U.S.-led coalition bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq unless Trump orders a change.

For its part, Russia, which tilted the war in Assad’s favor and expanded its influence in the Middle East, said it is prepared to reduce its military presence in Syria if the cease-fire holds.

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard

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