Beirut / AP
The deadline for a partial Syrian ceasefire negotiated by Russia and the US passed amid uncertainty over whether it would take hold and how to judge its success.
The “cessation of hostilities” went into effect at 12:01 a.m Saturday local time, but Syrian regime forces continued to shell rebel areas in the Damascus suburb of Al Marj and the city of Daraa, al Jazeera television reported, citing its reporters.
No one had predicted that all guns would fall silent after five years of a war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people and created a refugee crisis straining Europe’s borders.
“Of course, nobody can give a 100 percent guarantee,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a Moscow news conference with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi. “But there are very serious reasons for this positive development to be consolidated and made sustainable.”
Daily efforts will be required to enforce the agreement on the ground, and in the meantime strict controls should be in effect on Syria’s borders to prevent foreign fighters crossing into the country, Lavrov said.
The partial truce was announced by the US and Russia on February 22 Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government agreed to the proposal, and armed opposition groups on Friday confirmed their participation.
The Free Syrian Army and 97 armed factions are willing to abide by the ceasefire, Syria’s main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, said in a statement on Twitter. The “cessation of hostilities” agreement excludes IS and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, allowing Russia and a US-led coalition to continue airstrikes against them.
Staffan De Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, told the UN Security Council that he plans to resume stalled peace talks on March 7 if the ceasefire “largely holds,” according to the Associated Press, which reported that the council unanimously approved a resolution endorsing the agreement.
‘Put-Up or Shut-Up’
Now “it’s put-up or shut-up time” for Russia to show it’s serious about making the partial ceasefire work, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in
“The Russians have committed themselves to not carrying out strikes against groups that we consider part of the moderate opposition,” Toner said. The US has said Russian airstrikes that began in September to shore up Assad’s regime have largely targeted such groups rather than IS terrorists.
Enforcing the ceasefire has become even more urgent given concerns that Turkey and Saudi Arabia will become more heavily engaged in the war. While Russia and Iran are backing Assad, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are part of a US-led coalition supporting various rebel groups, including some that the Syrians and their allies consider radical extremists.
Four Saudi fighter jets landed at Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey to join the coalition against IS, the Turkish NTV channel reported, without citing anyone. A 30-member Saudi advance force arrived at the base on Wednesday, the station reported.
The political process to resolve the Syria crisis is the only area in which no progress has occurred, as some opposition groups and their foreign backers are seeking to gain more favorable positions for themselves, Lavrov said.
Russia is firmly committed to the agreement negotiated by the International Syria Support Group in Vienna in November, which set out a timetable for elections in 18 months. The US has said Assad eventually must step down as part of a transition.
The peace process will be lengthy and contradictory, and the US shouldn’t forget that terrorist groups other than IS operate in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a meeting with Federal Security Service officials, according to the Interfax news service.
While there are “plenty of reasons for skepticism,” the Syria ceasefire could save lives and lead regional powers to “reflect and assess” how to help end the war, US President Barack Obama said on Thursday after a meeting with his national security advisers. He directed his team to “continue intensifying efforts” against IS and said there’ll “be absolutely no ceasefire in our fight” against the group.