Clashes erupt near Damascus despite Syria truce

Syrian Abu Khaled

Syrian Abu Khaled

Syrian government forces and their allies clashed with rebels near Damascus on Friday, disrupting a nationwide ceasefire that otherwise appeared to hold, monitors and a rebel official said.

The clashes took place in a rebel-held valley northwest of the Syrian capital, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which has been monitoring the country’s six-year war.

Syrian government warplanes carried out nearly 20 raids against rebels in several towns along the provincial boundary between Idlib and Hama, the SOHR said.

Warplanes and helicopters also struck northwest of Damascus in the rebel-held Wadi Barada valley, where government troops and allied forces clashed with rebels, the group added.

The fighting broke out just hours into a ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey, and comes a week after rebel resistance was crushed in Syria’s second city of Aleppo.

Asaad Hanna, a political officer in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose alliance of insurgent groups, told Reuters that the violence had reduced but had not stopped.

“We cannot be optimistic about someone like the Russians who used to kill us for six years … they are not angels. But we are happy because we are reducing the violence and working to find a solution for the current situation,” said Hanna.

Although on opposing sides in the conflict, Turkey and Russia have been working intensively to find a ceasefire after the fall of Aleppo, in a process that conspicuously does not include the United States.

Ceasefire brokered by Kremlin and Ankara

On Friday the Russian ambassador to the United Nations said Moscow had circulated a proposed resolution at the UN Security Council that would endorse the latest ceasefire between Damascus and the “main forces of the armed opposition”, and said he hoped the council would vote on the resolution on Saturday.

On announcing the ceasefire, Putin also said he would reduce Moscow’s military contingent in Syria, which has been flying a bombing campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad since last year.

The Kremlin strongman, however, said that Russia would continue to fight “terrorism” in the war-torn country and maintain its support for the government in Damascus.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu warned that any groups that did not abide by the ceasefire would be considered “terrorists” alongside the Islamic State (IS) group and the former al Qaeda affiliate previously known as Al-Nusra Front, now rebranded the Fateh al-Sham Front.

The nationwide ceasefire, which came into effect midnight Thursday, follows the deal brokered by Turkey and Russia for Aleppo which allowed the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians.

Astana talks

Moscow and Ankara are now pushing for peace talks between Damascus and the rebels to start soon in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.

“Now we need to do everything for these agreements to come into force, for them to work, so that the negotiating teams that have been or are being formed promptly and as soon as possible arrive in Astana,” Putin said.

Russia and Turkey have both said that the peace talks they will supervise are meant to supplement UN-backed peace efforts, rather than replace them entirely.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia, Turkey and Iran were currently organising for the talks to begin in Astana and pressing for other key international players to get involved.

Lavrov said Moscow would invite Egypt before trying to attract other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq and Jordan.

In a clear snub to US President Barack Obama, Russia’s top diplomat said Moscow would look to get the team of President-elect Donald Trump in the mix when he takes power next month.

As its cooperation tightened with Moscow, Turkey stood conspicuously quiet as the regime, supported by Russia, took control last week of Aleppo, handing the rebels their biggest defeat in the civil war so far.

The victory was also a boost for Putin, who sent forces to Syria last year to bolster Assad in an unprecedented intervention.

Syria’s conflict began with a 2011 uprising against Assad but quickly morphed into a complicated civil war that has now killed more than 310,000 people and forced millions more from their homes.