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Russia, Syria announce ceasefire for eastern Ghouta rebel enclave near Damascus

Russia and Syria have announced a deal to de-escalate conflict in a rebel-held stronghold outside Damascus. The US, Russia and Jordan brokered a similar agreement earlier this month in southern Syria.

The Syrian military made the announcement after Russia, its chief backer, said it had reached an agreement with rebels to reduce fighting and bring in humanitarian goods to eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held enclave east of the capital Damascus.

Russia's defense ministry said on Saturday an agreement had been reached with the Syrian opposition on the boundaries for a de-escalation zone for the eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus. The Syrian army command said it had ceased military operations in several areas near the capital. Until Saturday, the eastern Damascus suburbs, known as eastern Gouta, have been subject to shelling and airstrikes.

Eastern Ghouta is one offour safe zones agreed by Iran and Russia, and Turkey, which backs rebel fighters.

Implementing the zones has been delayed over disagreement on the exact borders and who would police them. There are multiple rebel groups, including al-Qaeda, which fall outside of any ceasefire deal.

Battered by six years of conflict, eastern Ghouta would become only the second such zone to be created.

Ceasefire in force

The ceasefire went into effect at mid-day Saturday and it appeared to be largely holding, according to monitors.

"The army will retaliate in a suitable manner to any violation" of the ceasefire, the Syrian army said in statement.

Rebel fighters with homemade sniper rifles

Rebel fighters with homemade sniper rifles

Rebel infighting

Implementing any deal will be difficult. There are three main rebel groups in eastern Ghouta: the al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahir al-Sham, the Army of Islam and the Free Syrian Army-linked Faylaq al-Rahman. They have been prone to repeated bouts of infighting over territory and revenue sources.

The rebel infighting has allowed pro-Syria government forces to claw back territory in the enclave. Any deal between Russia and Syria with one group may trigger renewed rebel infighting with groups such as Hayat Tahir al-Sham which is opposed to negotiations.

Russia said it reached an agreement with a "moderate" rebel group in peace talks in Cairo, by which it probably meant the rebel group Faylaq al-Rahman.  It was not immediately clear if the Army of Islam, a rebel faction backed by Saudi Arabia, was part of the deal.

Watch video 00:35

US, Russia agree on ceasefire in south Syria

Faylaq al-Rahman spokesperson, Waiel Olwan, said he welcomed the cessation and said ceasefires were a first step to resolving the Syrian conflict.

He also said the deal "follows on from the ceasefire deal for the south of Syria," where the US, Russia and Jordanbrokered a de-escalation zone earlier this month.

Humanitarian aid

Russia said the eastern Ghouta deal had included a clause on how "the borders of the de-escalation zone are defined as well as the deployment locations and powers of the forces monitoring the de-escalation".

Read: US scraps covert CIA program to arm Syrian rebels

Moscow also said the sides had agreed "routes to supply humanitarian aid to the population and for free movement of residents." The first humanitarian convoy and evacuations could reach the enclave with days, it said.

A Syrian airstrike hitting a target in eastern Ghouta in March

A Syrian airstrike hitting a target in eastern Ghouta in March

Idlib and Homs zones waiting for ceasefires

The two other de-escalation zones yet to be set up are in the rebel stronghold of Idlib near the border with Turkey and an enclave in the northern province of Homs.

Idlib is dominated by the al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahir al-Sham, which in recent days has fought for supremacy in the region with the hard-line Islamist groups Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Saudi and Turkish backed Ahrar al-Sham. A regime offensive

The Syrian regime appears to be de-escalating the conflict around eastern Ghouta and the south in order to consolidate forces for ongoing fighting against IS fighters in the east of the country.

They also aim to eventually launch an offensive in Idlib, where there is little chance of a de-escalation zone agreement due to the role of the al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahir al-Sham. 

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cw/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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