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People's Daily Online

U.S., Russia announce Syria ceasefire plan, questions unresolved

People's Daily Online

(Xinhua) 10:11, February 23, 2016

WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 -- The United States and Russia on Monday announced a plan for a cessation of hostilities in Syria starting from Saturday, which the UN described as 'a signal of hope' for an end to the nearly five-year-old conflict.

Yet, the agreement, which excludes the Islamic State (IS), the Nusra Front or other terror organizations designated by the UN Security Council, still awaits commitment from Syria's warring government and armed opposition groups. It also leaves questions open on how to respond to breaches of the ceasefire.

The United States and Russia said in a joint statement that any party engaged in conflicts in Syria will indicate to Russia or the U.S. their commitment to the cessation of hostilities by no later than 12:00 (Damascus time) on Saturday.

The cessation of hostilities was largely envisaged in Munich on Feb. 12 during a meeting of the International Syrian Support Group(ISSG), which comprises the Arab League, the European Union, the United Nations, and 17 countries including China.

However, the ceasefire failed to take effect within a week as planned, given deep rifts between the United States and Russia, which are the main backers of the opposite warring sides in the Syrian conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced several million.

Further complicating the situation, the United States has had a hard time persuading Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two major allies in the region, to come to the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia have been threatening to send combat troops to Syria, while Turkey has started shelling IS-fighting Kurdish positions in northern Syria.

Ankara has called on coalition partners to launch joint ground operations in Syria, insisting it is the only way to end the neighboring country's civil war.

The Monday announcement of the truce deal capped weeks of intense diplomatic efforts to end the violence. But it left major unresolved questions over where the fighting must stop and where counterterrorism operations can continue.

The joint U.S.-Russian statement said the two countries and others would work together to delineate the territory held by the Islamic State, Nusra Front and the other militant groups excluded from the truce.

UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon welcomed the agreement. 'It is a long-awaited signal of hope to the Syrian people that after five years of conflict there may be an end to their suffering in sight,' he said in a statement.

The UN chief cautioned that 'much work now lies ahead to ensure its implementation,' calling on the the international community, the ISSG and the Syrian parties to 'remain steadfast in their resolve.'

Ban strongly urged the parties to abide by the agreement, which, if respected, would constitute 'a significant step forward in the implementation of Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).'

In a televised speech on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the ceasefire agreement 'a real step' towards ending five years of bloodshed in Syria.

'It is essential that Russia and the United States, co-chairs of the International Syrian Support Group, are ready to run an effective mechanism for the implementation and monitoring of the ceasefire by both the Syrian government and armed opposition groups,' Putin said in the address posted on the Kremlin's website.

Moscow and Washington will establish a hotline and, if necessary, a working group to exchange information after the cessation of hostilities has gone into effect, he said.

Putin said Russia will do whatever necessary to influence the Syrian leadership, adding that 'We are counting on the United States to do the same with its allies and groups it supported.'

U.S. President Barack Obama, in a telephone call with Putin on Monday, emphasized that the priority now was to ensure positive responses by the Syrian government and armed opposition as well as faithful implementation by all parties, the White House said.

While hailing the announcement of the agreement as 'a moment of promise,' U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the fulfillment of the promise depends on actions, admitting that 'we are all aware of the significant challenges ahead.'

The announcement of the ceasefire agreement came a day after five deadly bombings killed at least 150 people in central and southern Syria, marking one of the highest death tolls in a single day during the years of conflict.

Both the United States and Russia condemned the Sunday bombings for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility.

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