For the first time in more than five years, a nationwide ceasefire in Syria appears to be holding despite reports about isolated fighting.
The ceasefire that went into effect early Friday morning was brokered by Russia and Turkey without any involvement of the Obama administration and doesn’t include Islamic State, the former al-Qaeda branch Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and the Kurdish YPG militia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the ceasefire agreement Thursday evening, saying the deal had been confirmed by the Assad regime and the “main forces of the armed opposition.”
The Russian leader also vowed that Moscow would withdraw a part of its armed forces in case the ceasefire holds, and said if that would be the case, talks about a permanent solution to the conflict could start in Kazakhstan’s capital of 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.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu later announced that seven opposition groups, including the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham militia, had signed the deal.
Shoigu warned that opposition groups that fail to adhere to the ceasefire should be considered “terrorists.”
Apparently, not all Islamist groups included in the ceasefire deal agree with a cessation of hostilities and the prospect that Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad, will now remain in power.
The London-based monitor group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported fierce fighting Friday morning between Islamist factions and the Russian Iranian-led pro-Assad coalition.
“Fierce clashes took place between the two sides pushing regime forces to withdraw from a hill near Maharda,” Abdel Rahman, the director of SOHR, told AFP.
Maharda is a Christian town in the central Hama province in Syria.
“Small rebel groups and armed loyalists are seeking to destroy the truce because it puts an end to their presence,” Rahman added, but AFP correspondents in Syria reported Friday the ceasefire was holding in most regions.
The exclusion of the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia from the deal is the work of Turkish autocratic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who considers the YPG a terrorist organization because of its ties with the PKK, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey.
The YPG has proven to be the most effective force in the battle against Islamic State, but Erdogan wants the Turkish army and its mainly Islamist allies to continue preventing the Kurdish militia from connecting the three Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border.
“We aren’t included… Nobody asked us to join the truce because countries in the region deny that there is a nation called Kurds,” said Salih Muslim, a spokesman for the Syrian Kurds.
The exclusion of the Kurds from the ceasefire will probably lead to more problems in Syria, andwill not contribute to the solution of the wider Kurdish problem.
There are an estimated 35 million Kurds in the world, and most of them (14.5 million) live in Turkey, 6 million live in Iran, about 5 to 6 million in Iraq, and fewer than 2 million in Syria. From the outset of the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the Kurds have made clear that they see the struggle as a unique opportunity to establish an autonomous Kurdish state in the Middle East.
Tensions between the Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime reached fever pitch this week after the exclusion of the YPG from the ceasefire and the upcoming peace negotiations.
The regime in Damascus demands the Kurds give up their autonomous areas and drop their demand for a federal system in Syria.
Assad also demands Kurdish support for the consolidation of his regime.
The Russians, who are increasingly replacing the United States as the superpower in the Middle East, are now trying to mediate between the two sides and organized a meeting that took place Tuesday.
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