Syrian peace talks in Astana have concluded with Russia, Turkey and Iran striking a deal on a trilateral mechanism to safeguard the ongoing ceasefire. However, Syrian rebels have criticized ongoing government offensives.
The mechanism will also seek to "prevent any provocations and determine all modalities of the ceasefire," according to a joint statement from the three countries at the end of talks on Tuesday.
Russia and Iran, which have given military backing to the Syrian government, and Turkey - which supports many rebel elements - pledged to "fight jointly" against the terror groups "Islamic State" (IS) and the al Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Sham Front.
Hope for UN talks
The three countries also said the UN-backed peace process under which government and opposition representatives are due to meet in Geneva next month is in urgent need of a "jumpstart."
International reactions to the talks' conclusion - especially to the prospect of revived UN negotiations - have been largely positive. In a joint press conference, the foreign ministers of France and Saudi Arabia, both backers of Syrian rebels, welcomed the possibility of reopening UN-led peace efforts and increasing civilian aid.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura also expressed optimism for the February talks in Geneva.
"We (the UN) are the main player in regards to the political process," he 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."
The talks in Kazakhstan's capital, which began Monday, were aimed at shoring up a ceasefire between the government and some opposition groups brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran that has been in place since December and has managed to restrain the intensity of hostilities in Syria.
Rebels react cautiously
Though the Syrian rebel groups present at the talks also separately confirmed their support for the mechanism, they criticized Syrian government military offensives, arguing the fighting violates the ceasefire. However, the government's chief negotiator Bashar Ja'afari said the offensive would continue.
The Barada valley near Damascus is particularly contested by rebel and government forces due to its function as the capital city's water source. A rebel delegate warned Russia that the ceasefire would be "destroyed" if government forces retook the valley.
The ceasefire does not include terrorist groups such as Fatah al-Sham or IS, which is engaged in a massive offensive against government forces in the Deir Ezzor province.
Praise for Russia, not for Iran
The Syrian rebel forces present at the talks commended Russia for its leadership role and criticized perceived Iranian interference.
"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 (Shi'ite) Hezbollah forces, Iran and the regime," Mohammed Alloush, head of the rebel delegation, said. He added that rebels would not tolerate Iranian influence in Syria's future demographic makeup, particularly in certain Sunni areas. Alloush referred to Iran's actions as a "bloodletting."
According to AFP, Russia also gave Syrian rebels a draft for a new constitution drawn up by Moscow in an attempt to accelerate political negotiations in the war-torn country. However, Syria rebels reportedly refused to discuss the document.
Joining forces or crossing wires?
Meanwhile, the Russian army has said it carried out joint attacks with US forces on IS targets in Syria.
The commander of the Russian air force contingent in Syria had "received from the American side ... the coordinates of IS targets in al-Bab, in the province of Aleppo," Russia's defense ministry said in a statement.
"Two Russian air force planes and two planes of the (US-led) international coalition carried out air strikes against terrorist sites," destroying arms and fuel dumps in the "joint operation," the ministry said.
The US defense department denied the claim, but President Donald Trump's spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters in Washington that the new US president is open to conducting joint operations with Russia to combat IS in Syria.
"If there's a way we can combat IS with any country, whether it's Russia or anyone else, and we have a shared national interest in that, sure, we'll take it," Spicer told reporters.
President Trump has been open about his intention to improve relations with Russia and has said his aim is to destroy IS.
cmb, jbh/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)