Cease-fire deal reached in Syria, raising hopes for peace

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria and its chief ally Russia reached a cease-fire agreement with Syria’s mainstream rebel fighters Thursday, a potential breakthrough in the six-year civil war that has left more than a quarter-million people dead and triggered a refugee crisis across Europe.

The nationwide truce, set to begin at midnight local time, was brokered by both Russia and Turkey, which support opposing sides in the war, and was confirmed by a Syrian opposition spokesman, who said most major rebel groups would abide by it.

If it holds, the cease-fire will be followed by peace talks next month in Kazakhstan between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and opposition groups, Russian President Vladimir Putin said.

The truce does not include the Islamic State group or al-Qaida’s branch in Syria. And several previous cease-fires all collapsed, some of them in a matter of days.

Nevertheless, the deal raised hopes that a political settlement for a ruinous war that has generally defied all attempts at resolution could be reached in the coming months, in part because the landscape has significantly shifted recently.

Thursday’s announcement comes days after the Syrian government recaptured Aleppo from rebels who had held the eastern part of the city for more than four years. Not only has the balance of power tilted in favor of Assad, but Turkey, which is fighting Kurdish and Islamic militants at home, appears more willing to strike a bargain with Russia if it means protecting its borders.

“This is a different political scene, and one would expect some outcomes to emerge,” said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut. He cautioned, however, against expecting immediate results from the first round of talks.

Putin said the cease-fire will be guaranteed by Moscow — Assad’s chief patron and battlefield ally — and by Turkey. Turkey is a main backer of the opposition forces, who use the country’s long border with Syria to cross back and forth, and has wide influence on them. The agreement was also praised by Iran, one of Assad’s strongest backers.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the truce will include 62,000 opposition fighters across Syria and that the Russian military has established a hotline with its Turkish counterpart to monitor compliance. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will be welcome to join the peace process once he takes office.

Putin said he ordered the Russian military to scale back its presence in Syria, where it has provided crucial support to Assad’s forces. Putin didn’t say how many troops and weapons will be withdrawn. He said Russia will continue “fighting international terrorism in Syria” and supporting Assad’s military.

The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the cease-fire announcement, saying he hopes the agreement will save civilian lives, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid and pave the way for productive peace talks.

Earlier Thursday, Turkey called on Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria. The Iranian-backed extremist group has sent thousands of fighters to support Assad and has been playing an instrumental role in the civil war since 2013.

Foreign fighters from around the world have joined both sides of the Syrian conflict, which has displaced half the country’s population and produced more than 4 million refugees. Many of those refugees have been streaming into Europe, fueling anti-immigration sentiment and terrorist fears that are reshaping the continent’s political landscape.

Syria’s military noted that the cease-fire comes after the “successes achieved by the armed forces,” an apparent reference to the fierce fighting in Aleppo.

Osama Abo Zayd, a spokesman for mainstream Syrian opposition groups, told reporters in the Turkish capital of Ankara that 13 armed opposition factions have signed the five-point agreement and that they have agreed to abide by the cease-fire.

He said the peace talks will be based on the Geneva 2012 declaration that calls for a governing body with full executive powers to run affairs in Syria during a transition period. “This means that there will be no presence for Assad in the future,” he said.

Assad’s future has been the main sticking in previous negotiations between the warring sides, and he is seen as unlikely to step down, particularly when he’s on the winning side.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem suggested Syria would not be willing to compromise on Assad’s fate. “Everything is negotiable except national sovereignty and the people’s right to choose its leadership,” he told Syrian TV.

Khashan, the political analyst, said Assad’s exit is “out of the question.”

“Neither the Russians nor the Iranians would allow it to happen,” he said.

Saeed Sadek, a professor of political sociology at Cairo’s Future University, said Assad has no power to accept or reject any deals.

“He is now under the control of Moscow, Tehran and Ankara. All these countries will decide his future,” he said.

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