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Turkey, Russia reach deal on Syria ceasefire

Chase Winter
December 28, 2016

Turkey and Russia have developed a proposal for a ceasefire in Syria aimed at paving the way for political talks. Much remains unclear about the proposed talks in Kazakhstan.

Türkei Weltenergiekongress 2016 in Istanbul - Putin und Erdogan
Image: picture-alliance/AA/M. Pala

Turkey and Russia have reached agreement on a proposal to implement a country-wide ceasefire in Syria, Turkish state media reported on Wednesday.

Citing Turkish government sources, Anadolu Agency reported Turkey and Russia have agreed on a ceasefire plan to present to the warring sides of the conflict ahead of planned peace talks in the Kazakhstan next month.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Dmitry Peskov didn't comment on the report, saying he didn't have "sufficient information."

The ceasefire proposal aims to pause fighting between the Syrian army and "pro-regime foreign terrorist groups" on one side and the armed opposition on the other by Thursday in order to create an environment conducive to political talks, Anadolu said. The ceasefire would not include terrorist groups, though the report did not specify which groups would be given the "terrorist" label.

Anadolu reported Russia and Turkey would act as "guarantors" of the ceasefire.

Turkey considers the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) and the US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) as terrorist groups. Syria and Russia consider large parts of the armed opposition as terrorist groups, including Fateh al-Sham, formerly the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, as well as other Islamist and jihadi factions backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 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.

What groups are indicated in wording describing foreign militia backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as "terrorists" was also unclear. Russia began its intervention in Syria in September 2015 to support Assad's forces, changing the trajectory of the nearly six-year war in the regime's favor. His army gutted after defections and years of fighting, Assad has relied heavily on fighters from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and Iran-backed Shiite militia.

Russia's intervention 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. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that the Syrian opposition would not accept Assad remaining in power.

Iran, Russia and Turkey announced last week they had agreed to broker planned peace talks to be held between the Syrian regime and the opposition in the Kazakh capital, Astana. The talks exclude the United States, but, according to the joint declaration, aim to support an elusive UN-led peace process. Responding to the proposed talks on Wednesday, Germany's foreign ministry said it supported a resolution of the conflict but that any efforts by Iran, Russia and Turkey should not replace those of the UN.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that it was in contact with the Syrian regime and opposition. But the Saudi-based High Negotiations Committee, which collects the political and armed opposition under a single negotiating body, said it had not been consulted. Riad Hijab, general coordinator for the High Negotiations Committee, did, however, say the opposition would support confidence building measures ahead of political talks.