Middle East

Syria conflict: Warring parties accept US-Russia truce plan

Syrian Democratic Forces fighters look at Islamic State positions in Hassakeh province (19 February 2016) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption More than 250,000 people have died in almost five years of war in Syria

The Syrian government and the main opposition umbrella group say they accept the terms of a deal to cease hostilities from Saturday.

The government said it would halt "combat operations" in line with the plan announced by the US and Russia.

But the opposition said its acceptance depended on government forces ending sieges and air strikes of civilians.

The deal will not apply to the two main jihadist groups in Syria, Islamic State (IS) and the rival al-Nusra Front.

Al-Nusra is an affiliate of al-Qaeda and forms part of a major rebel alliance that controls large parts of the country's north-west.

What's a 'cessation of hostilities'? How it differs from a truce or a ceasefire

Who's in and who's out? Which armed groups will not be abiding by the accord

More than 250,000 people have died in almost five years of war in Syria.

Eleven million others have fled their homes as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule battle each other, as well as IS militants.

'Right to respond'

Under the terms of the agreement announced by the US and Russia on Monday, the Syrian government and opposition were required to indicate by noon on Friday (10:00 GMT) whether they would comply with the cessation of hostilities.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Syrian opposition said it would accept the deal only if attacks on civilians stopped

The High Negotiation Committee (HNC) issued a statement after a meeting in Saudi Arabia saying it was "committed to the success of the international efforts dedicated to ending Syrian bloodshed".

But it warned that "acceptance of the truce is conditional'' on the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 2254, which calls on all parties to lift sieges, allow aid deliveries, halt aerial and artillery attacks on civilians, and release detainees.

The Syrian government later declared "its acceptance of a halt to combat operations on the basis of continuing military efforts to combat terrorism".

It added that it would work with Russia, which has conducted air strikes against Mr Assad's opponents since September, to identify areas and armed groups that were covered and reserved the right to "respond to any breach by these groups ".

Russians sense opportunity: Steve Rosenberg, BBC News Moscow

Moscow's military intervention in Syria has been a game changer.

Not only has it forced the West to sit down at the negotiating table and deal with Russia and its president, but also to recognise Russia as a major world power. And, of course, it has given a huge boost to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The reason Washington no longer demands the Syrian leader's resignation as a pre-condition to peace is because it knows that is no longer realistic: Russian firepower has made Mr Assad more secure, his armed opponents weaker.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Vladimir Putin said the cessation of hostilities could "radically transform" the crisis in Syria

The Russians sense that both the United States and Europe want a swift end to this conflict, and they know that the Syrian refugee crisis is putting a huge strain on the EU.

So, Russia sees its chance to change the way it is viewed: it wants to be seen by the West not as the problem, but the solution.

The Syrian government also stressed the importance of sealing Syria's borders, halting foreign support for armed groups, and "preventing these organisations from strengthening their capabilities or changing their positions".

The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance told the Associated Press that it would not abide by the deal because it was fighting only IS in northern Syria.

'Mixed areas'

The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has described the plan for the cessation of hostilities as encouraging, but acknowledged that enforcing it on the ground will be challenging.

Mr de Mistura will convene a taskforce to monitor the deal as soon as it takes effect, due at midnight on Saturday (22:00 GMT on Friday).

The US, which supports the opposition to Mr Assad, will also share information with Russia, including data that delineates territory where armed groups are active.

Rebel commanders expressed doubts about the accord, saying it would provide cover for government forces and Russian aircraft to continue their attacks.

"Russia and the regime will target the areas of the revolutionaries on the pretext of al-Nusra Front's presence," Bashar al-Zoubi of the Yarmouk Army told the Reuters news agency. "If this happens, the truce will collapse."

US Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate committee that it would be clear very soon whether Russia was serious about ending the conflict.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Syrian government said "military efforts to combat terrorism" would continue

"The proof will be in the actions that come in the next days," he said.

He added that Mr Assad was going to "going to have to make some real decisions" about the formation of a transitional administration, as part of a UN Security Council-endorsed peace process, or the US would consider "Plan B options".

Fighting continued on Tuesday despite the plan for a cessation of hostilities.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, reported that air strikes, believed to have been carried out by Russian jets, had targeted one of the last roads into opposition-held eastern areas of the city of Aleppo.

South of Aleppo, IS militants captured the town of Khanaser, cutting a road used to supply government-controlled areas of the city, the Syrian Observatory said.

Meanwhile, state TV reported that an aid convoy had entered the eastern Damascus suburb of Kafr Batna, which is under siege by government forces.