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Syrian government, opposition agree to ceasefire

The Syrian government and armed opposition have agreed to a countrywide ceasefire. Turkey and Russia will act as the ceasefire's "guarantors" ahead of planned political talks between Damascus and the opposition.

The Syrian government and armed opposition have agreed to a countrywide ceasefire, Turkey and Russia said on Thursday.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey and Russia, who support opposing sides of the conflict, would act as "guarantors" of the agreement brokered by Moscow and Ankara in recent weeks.

"With this agreement, parties have agreed to cease all armed attacks, including aerial, and have promised not to expand the areas they control against each other," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

 

The Syrian military said in a statement published on state media "SANA" that its forces would implement the ceasefire at midnight (2200 UTC) on Thursday. The ceasefire announcement comes after "victories and advances achieved by the Syrian armed forces on more than one front," the army said in a statement.

Syria's opposition National Coalition said it would support the ceasefire after rebel representatives said earlier there were some obstacles that still needed to be overcome before they would agree to a truce. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in televised remarks on Thursday that Damascus and the "main forces of the armed opposition" had agreed to a ceasefire. He also ordered a reduction in Russia's military presence in Syria, without providing details.

With dozens of armed groups operating in the country it was unclear which rebel factions had signed onto the ceasefire. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the ceasefire would include about 60,000 rebel fighters. 

The ceasefire will not include UN-designated terrorist groups, including the so-called "Islamic State" and Fatah al-Sham, formerly the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. Disagreement over which groups should be considered terrorists has torpedoed previous international efforts led by Russia and the United States to implement a sustained ceasefire.

Fatah al-Sham's exclusion from the ceasefire is likely to complicate implementing the deal on the ground. The group is one of the strongest in the country and has often fought alongside other Islamist rebel factions, providing Russia and Syria excuses to target the extremist outfit and rebels during previous ceasefires.     

Turkey and Russia coordinated the withdrawal of rebel fighters and civilians from eastern Aleppo earlier this month. Those negotiations have been followed by intense talks in recent weeks to secure a ceasefire aimed as a confidence building measure ahead of planned political talks between the Syrian regime and opposition in Kazakhstan next month. 

Putin said the warring sides had signed three documents covering the ceasefire, monitoring the deal and a commitment to start political talks to end the conflict. 

"The agreements reached are, of course, fragile, need a special attention and involvement... But after all, this is a notable result of our joint work, efforts by the defense and foreign ministries, our partners in the regions," Putin said.

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United States not at the table

In the interview on Turkish "A Haber" television on Thursday, Cavusoglu said that all foreign fighters would need to leave Syria. He specifically named the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, the Iran-backed ally of President Bashar al-Assad.

His army gutted after defections and years of fighting, Assad has relied heavily on fighters from Hezbollah and Iran-backed Shiite militia. Iran did not respond to Cavusoglu's position, but Putin said Tehran would also act as a guarantor of the ceasefire.

Cavusoglu also said it was "out of the question" for Turkey to hold any direct talks with Assad.

Russia's intervention in September and the reversion of eastern Aleppo to government control earlier this month has prompted a sharp reversal in Turkey's policy of seeking to oust Assad.  But deep divisions over the role of Assad in any political transition remain between Turkey, the West and the Arab Gulf states on one side, and Russia and Iran on the other.

According to sources cited by Reuters news agency, a political deal would allow Assad to stay on as president until the next election, when he would quit, with guarantees in place for him and his family. Reuters also reported that it is unclear if Iran was completely onboard with this plan.

The upcoming negotiations in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, would serve as a "complementary step" to the UN-backed peace effort centered in Geneva, Cavusoglu said the Kazakhstan talks would not include the United States. 

Russian sources have said the first step to achieving peace would be to implement the ceasefire before the talks start. After that, the officials would try to enlist the help of Gulf states, then the US, and finally the European Union.

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cw/dj/sms (AFP, Reuters)

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