Syria fighting eases as Russian deal
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[May 06, 2017]
By Lisa Barrington
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Fighting between Syrian
rebel and government forces eased on Saturday as a Russian-led effort to
shore up a ceasefire took effect, although battles continued on an
important frontline near Hama, a rebel commander and war monitor said.
The deal to create "de-escalation" zones in the major areas of conflict
in western Syria took effect at midnight. The initiative was proposed by
Russia, President Bashar al-Assad's most powerful ally, with the support
of Turkey, which backs the opposition. Iran, Assad's other major ally,
also backed it.
Political and armed opposition groups have rejected the proposal, saying
Russia has been unwilling or unable to get Assad and his Iranian-backed
militia allies to respect past ceasefires. The Syrian government said it
backed the proposal but said it would continue to fight what it called
terrorist groups across the country.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there had been a reduction
in fighting across Syria since the deal came into force, but warned it
was too early to say whether it would last.
"The reduction in violence must be clear and lasting," Observatory
Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters.
The rebel commander said the general level of violence was reduced, but
added: "Regime attempts (to advance) in the Hama countryside continue."
With the help of Russia and Iranian-backed militias, the Syrian
government has gained the military upper hand in the six-year conflict.
The wide array of rebel groups include some supported by Turkey, the
United States and Gulf monarchies.
The Observatory said it had not recorded any deaths as a result of
fighting in the four zones since midnight, but there had been some
Breaches were seen mainly in northern Hama province, where Syrian
government and allied forces have taken territory from rebels in recent
Fighter jets fired at the rebel-held village of al-Zalakiyat and nearby
positions in the northern Hama countryside, where the combatants
exchanged shelling, the Britain-based war monitoring group said.
The Observatory said government forces shelled the nearby towns of Kafr
Zita and Latamneh. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian army.
Mohammed Rasheed, a spokesman for the Jaish al-Nasr rebel group based in
Hama, confirmed that fighting had broken out after midnight.
Rasheed said rebel-held Idlib province to the north of Hama was almost
completely quiet, but the attacks, which included barrel bombs, were
focused on the northern Hama frontline area.
"The bombardment has not stopped, it is no different from before," he
Iran and Turkey agreed on Thursday to a Russian proposal for
de-escalation zones in Syria. The text of the memorandum was published
by the Russian foreign ministry on Saturday.
The agreement said four de-escalation zones would be established in
Syria for a period of six months which could be extended if the three
signatory countries agree. Weaponry and air strikes were not to be used
in those zones by combatants, the text said.
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The agreement also included creating conditions for humanitarian
access, medical assistance and the return of displaced civilians to
This initiative is the most serious effort to reduce violence and
shore up a ceasefire first declared in December since western states
accused Damascus of a chemical attack in early April on rebel-held
The chemical incident prompted the U.S. to fire dozens of cruise
missiles at a Syrian airbase from which it said the attack had been
launched, increasing tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
The de-escalation zones appear intended to halt conflict in specific
areas between government forces and rebels, and would potentially be
policed by foreign troops.
The deal was negotiated at Russian-brokered talks in Astana which
have taken place this year outside of United Nations-sponsored peace
talks in Geneva.
U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura hailed the plan as a
step in the right direction towards a real cessation of hostilities.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was encouraged by
The U.S. State Department voiced concerns about the deal, saying it
was skeptical of Iran's involvement as a guarantor of the accord and
Damascus' track record on previous agreements.
"We continue to have concerns about the Astana agreement, including
the involvement of Iran as a so-called 'guarantor'," the State
Department said in a statement on Thursday. "Iran's activities in
Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it."
The Russian defense ministry had said the agreement would come into
force as of midnight Damascus time on Friday and encompass four
The largest zone, in northern Syria, includes Idlib province and
adjoining districts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia with a population of
over 1 million, the memorandum text said.
The other three zones are in northern Homs province, the Eastern
Ghouta region east of Damascus and along the Jordanian border in
But one part of the Eastern Ghouta zone, Qaboun, is exempt from the
deal, Defence Ministry official Lieutenant-General Sergei Rudskoi
said on Friday. He said this was because Qaboun contained the
al-Qaeda-linked group formerly known as the Nusra Front.
On Saturday the Observatory said rockets hit Qaboun where the
government has been pressing an offensive for several weeks.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and Maria Kiselyova
in Moscow; Editing by Tom Perry and Keith Weir)
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