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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nationwide Syrian Cease-fire Begins

By VOA News December 29, 2016

Reports from Syria say violent clashes broke out less than two hours after the start of a nationwide cease-fire that began at midnight Friday, local time.

The deal includes the Syrian government and several rebel groups, but not certain Islamist groups. That arrangement follows suit with previous halts in fighting.

The monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said Friday that rebels violated the cease-fire by taking over territory in the province of Hama.

But Mohammed Rasheed, a spokesman for the Jaish al-Nasr rebel group, told Reuters news service that government forces violated the deal by shelling areas in Idlib province, which borders Hama.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which supports rebel groups, have said they would guarantee the truce, which came after Turkey, Syria and Russia last week said they were ready to broker a peace deal in the six-year war.

The cease-fire was expected to be followed by renewed peace talks next month in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called the cease-fire proposal fragile but said it had the support of the Syrian government and the "main forces of the armed opposition."

"The agreements that have been reached are of course fragile and need special attention and accompaniment for them to be preserved and developed. But nevertheless it's a notable result of our joint work," Putin told a meeting of government ministers.


There are dozens of groups fighting in Syria, and it was not immediately clear which of them had agreed to halt hostilities.

Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, confirmed it would abide by the truce but told The Associated Press it would retaliate if attacked.

Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, two Islamist rebel groups, also joined the cease-fire, according to a statement by Russia's Defense Ministry.

But the Free Syrian Army, a loose alliance of rebel groups supported by Ankara and Washington, said the truce did not include the Islamic State group or the Kurdish YPG militia.

"My answer is clear. This agreement is between the opposition and the regime. That means the cease-fire is between the regime and the opposition," said Osama Abu Zaid, a spokesman for the FSA.

The U.N. Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, praised the cease-fire. In a statement, he said the deal would "save civilian lives, facilitate the delivery humanitarian assistance across Syria and pave the way for productive talks in Astana."

There have been three previous attempts to secure a nationwide cease-fire in Syria. The most recent was in September, but it lasted only a little over a week.

Fighting 'likely to continue'

VOA's Moscow correspondent Daniel Schearf said some fighting was likely to continue, regardless of whether most opposition groups agreed to the truce.

"We have to be cautious, of course, because we've seen announcements similar to this in the past, not just with the cease-fire but also with Russia saying it could scale back some of its forces, and then we saw the continued assaults with Russian backing and increased military involvement both in the Mediterranean and in the skies over Syria," Schearf said.

Earlier this month, Moscow and Ankara brokered an agreement for a cease-fire and evacuation of refugees from the rebel enclave in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Last week, the Turkish, Iranian and Russian foreign ministers met in Moscow for talks on Syria.

Russia and Turkey back opposite sides in the Syrian war, but analysts say they have come to recognize each other's importance to resolving the conflict.

"These efforts are significant, but what will really determine their real significance is what results they bear," said political columnist Semih Idiz of the Al Monitor website. "We saw with the evacuation in Aleppo it bore some results. If the cease-fire does work, it will become a very important diplomatic track for Syria."

Ankara and Moscow have stated that terrorist groups will not be covered by any cease-fire. But analysts warn a potential key stumbling block remains over the designation of which rebel groups are considered terrorist organizations.

Earlier this week, Lavrov said Russia, Iran and Turkey had agreed that the priority in Syria was to fight terrorism, not the removal of Assad's government.

Putin said Thursday that he had ordered the Russian military to scale back its deployment in Syria, though he gave no specifics.

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Franz Klintsevich, the deputy chairman of the Russian upper chamber's defense and security committee, as saying that Moscow would follow the "as low as reasonably practicable" principle in Syria.

"Not a single serviceman of ours who is unnecessary should remain in Syria," he said.

Russia has been a key player, especially since it launched a military intervention in Syria in 2015 in support of Assad.

The United States is not scheduled to attend next month's peace talks. But Lavrov said the U.S. could join the peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month.

Dorian Jones contributed to this report

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