World powers agreed on a partial cease-fire in Syria’s civil war, reaching a deal that could forestall a humanitarian crisis around the besieged city of Aleppo even amid skepticism about how broad and lasting the truce might be.
Backing the accord were all the major outside powers in the five-year-old conflict, including the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. But the halt to fighting won’t cover extremist groups like IS, meaning US, French and Russian air strikes against them will continue. Reaction in the region and from forces inside Syria was cautious.
“It’s a positive step but it’s only a very small step,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consulting firm Cornerstone Global Associates, who spoke from Dubai. “Even if the cease-fire holds it does not mean the end of the Syrian war.”
The deal came as Russia’s six-month-old bombing campaign backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has delivered its biggest results so far, with government forces threatening to drive rebels out of their stronghold, Aleppo. Russia’s military intervention has upended US-backed efforts to force Assad from power and provoked threats of military moves from US ally Saudi Arabia, fueling fears the conflict could escalate even further.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the truce would be a “pause.” Achieving the “nationwide cessation of hostilities” will be “ambitious,” he said. If implemented, the cease-fire would be the first formally declared and sustained suspension of the fighting since the war started in 2011. The truce is set to start in a week, while air-drops of humanitarian aid will begin immediately.
“Putting an end to the bloodshed is essential, as is to provide Syrians who are starving with the humanitarian aid that they need,” Kerry said at a news conference announcing the agreement. Speaking alongside him, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said reaching a lasting cease fire will be “difficult,” but said the US and Russia would negotiate over the coming week on the details of the halt to fighting.
Rebel groups won’t halt hostilities unless Assad’s forces and their Russian and Iranian allies stop targeting them by Feb. 18, the High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition group, said. The body is ready to attend the next round of United Nations-sponsored peace talks scheduled for Feb. 25 if the commitments are implemented, chief spokesman Salem Al Muslet said in an interview in Munich.
“There are many positive points in this agreement and if they stick to it, we can do something good for the Syrians,” Al Muslet said. “We support the implementation of this agreement to test the goodwill of the other party.”
But he called on the US to ensure Russia stops bombing opposition groups. “I hope that the US will do the job right because you cannot really trust Putin on this issue,” he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Within Syria, initial reactions to the deal were skeptical. “This is a conditional ceasefire that’s not right and unacceptable,” Col Haitham Afisi, deputy chief of staff of the rebel Free Syrian Army, said by phone from the Turkish-Syrian border. “People in Syria are dying of hunger and Aleppo and other areas are besieged. The ceasefire can only be accepted if roads are reopened, humanitarian aid reaches those in need of it and the main demands of the opposition are met.”
Syrian lawmaker Sharif Shehadeh, a regime loyalist, said from Damascus that as long as there’s no “clarity” on the issue of which groups are considered terrorists and thus not covered by the truce, it’s unlikely the deal will hold. “I’m not optimistic,” Shehadeh said.
UN-brokered peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition broke down last week as Assad’s Russian-supported assault tightened the encirclement of Aleppo, once Syria’s most- populous city. The US and its regional allies have blamed Russian bombardment of the rebels for worsening the humanitarian situation. Russia denies that.
Syria’s civil war has already left about 260,000 people dead and caused the biggest migrant crisis in Europe since World War II, as well as a growing threat from terrorist attacks.
The agreement reached early Friday morning in Munich doesn’t cover IS and Al Nusra, two extremist groups fighting against the Assad regime.
They and any others designated as terrorists by the United Nations Security Council will continue to be subject to attacks. Under the deal, the US and Russia will decide over the next week which areas of Syria will still be subject to bombing.
The one-week delay could also give Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, time to make further gains on the ground. While Russian officials say they’re targeting only terrorist groups, the US and its allies accuse them of bombing other opposition groups, including those backed by western powers.
“Russia has agreed to talks knowing that the ceasefire won’t last,” Frants Klintsevich, deputy chairman of the Defense Committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said in a telephone interview. “Bombing won’t completely halt, but we will reduce the amount.”
Russia doesn’t want to look “like the aggressor it is being demonized as,” he said, adding that cooperating on the peace deal could help ease tensions with the US and European Union.