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Foreign powers back Syria truce deal, war erupts among rebels

By Reuters - Jan 24,2017 - Last updated at Jan 24,2017

Residents walk through the destruction of the once rebel-held Salaheddine neighbourhood in the eastern Aleppo, Syria, on Friday (AP photo by Hassan Ammar)

ASTANA — Russia and regional powers Turkey and Iran backed a shaky truce between Syria's warring parties on Tuesday and agreed to monitor its compliance, but on the ground rebels faced continued fighting on two fronts which could undermine the deal.

After two days of deliberations in Astana, Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said the powers had agreed in a final communiqué to establish a system "to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, prevent any provocations and determine all modalities of the ceasefire".

While welcoming the text, the Syrian government's chief negotiator Bashar Jaafari said an offensive against rebels west of Damascus would carry on. Rebels say it is a major violation of the ceasefire agreed on December 30.

Opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush said he had reservations about the text which he said legitimised Iran's "bloodletting" in Syria and did not address the role of Shiite militias fighting rebels.

In northwest Syria, heavy fighting erupted between Jabhat Fateh Al Sham and Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions who were represented at the Astana talks.

FSA groups are reeling after being driven from Aleppo city last month by government forces and their allies. Any further loss of territory in their main northern stronghold — this time at the hands of insurgents — could leave them too weak to achieve any meaningful gains from peace negotiations.

In Astana, rebel and government delegates held indirect talks for the first time in nine months at a time when Turkey, which backs the rebels, and Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, want to disentangle themselves from the fighting. 

That has led them into an ad-hoc alliance that also appears to enshrine Iran in a process that could lead to some form of political settlement — leaving the United Nations' role unclear, especially with the United States distracted by domestic issues.

The talks represent a coup for Moscow, which has evolved into the main powerbroker since its military intervention in September 2015 to shore up Assad. “We have managed... to give birth to the Astana process,” the head of the Russian delegation, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters.

The final text did not go into any details beyond reaffirming the Turkish-Russian December 30 ceasefire. A Western diplomat said the three powers agreed to meet again in Astana on February 6 to discuss the mechanism.


Fighting for water


Since the ceasefire announcement government-backed forces have launched an offensive northwest of Damascus in the Wadi Barada area, where fighting intensified on Tuesday.

The government and its allies, including Lebanese group Hizbollah were trying to push forward in Ain Al Fija, where springs and a pumping station that supply most of the capital’s water are located.

Rebels had come to the meeting hoping Moscow would put pressure on the Iranians to curb military offensives. 

“The Russians have moved from a stage of being a party in the fighting and are now exerting efforts to become a guarantor. They are finding a lot of obstacles from [Lebanon’s Shiite] Hizbollah forces, Iran and the regime,” Alloush told reporters after the talks.
He said he expected Russia to respond within a week on a rebel ceasefire proposal and that rebels would never allow Iran, which they accuse of trying to change the demographic make-up of certain Sunni Muslim areas, to have a say in Syria’s future.

Government envoy Ja’afari said it was “pitiful” that some “armed terrorist groups in Astana” were criticising Iran, one of the three guarantors.

Western diplomats attending the talks informally said despite a lack of detail about the ceasefire, it was positive that the final communique mentioned reviving the UN political talks in Geneva under UN Resolution 2254 and that the three powers agreed to jointly fight Daesh and Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, which changed its name from Nusra Front last year, and to separate them from armed opposition groups.

However, Assad’s foreign backers and opponents have rarely agreed on exactly which fighters represent moderate rebel forces and which ones are extremists.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who was attending the Astana talks, said he now hoped to reconvene peace talks in Geneva next month.


“We [the UN] are the main player in regards to the political process,” de Mistura said. “The political process should continue in Geneva... We cannot allow another ceasefire to be, in a way, wasted, because of a lack of a political process.”

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