Russia, Turkey broker truce in Syria

Stepan Kravchenko
Bloomberg News

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 six years of civil war.

“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 cease-fire, due to take effect at midnight, covers more than 60,000 rebel fighters from seven major armed groups as well as Syrian government forces and their allies. It marks the most ambitious step yet in a Russian-Turkish bid to seize the initiative in resolving the conflict, and the two countries will monitor the truce via a special military hotline.

The deal sidelines the U.S., which had led peace efforts without success for years, most recently when a similar nationwide 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 seized the diplomatic initiative after its forces helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to defeat rebel forces in the country’s largest city, Aleppo, earlier this month in a turning point in the war.

The Russian-Turkish accord won the support of major rebel groups. “Factions who are with us will comply with the cease-fire,” Riad Hassan Agha, a spokesman for the Saudi-backed High Committee for Negotiations, said by phone.

Nasr Al-Hariri, a member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said his group signed the agreement and all opposition forces are committed to the truce. Al-Hariri told Al Jazeera TV he “hoped this will pave the way for a new political phase” despite “very bad experiences” with previous cease-fire agreements.The Syrian army said it would abide by a nationwide truce as of midnight.

Turkey said the cessation of hostilities won’t apply to groups designated as terrorists by the United Nations Security Council. These include Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has ties to al-Qaeda.

“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.

In addition to the cease-fire, documents on monitoring the truce and on a willingness to start peace talks were also signed, Putin said. Russia is ready to reduce its military presence in Syria once the agreement takes effect, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed in Moscow last week to seek a truce in Syria and to invite all sides to peace talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana.They offered to act as guarantors of a deal to end the conflict that has killed more than 300,000 people and sent millions fleeing to neighboring countries and to Europe.

Russia is urging international support for the cease-fire accord, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, adding that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and Jordan will be invited to endorse the agreement soon.

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.”