Syrian ceasefire begins but US expecting violations

Damascus, A fragile, temporary and partial cessation of hostilities has come into force in Syria after 97 fighting groups, as well as the Syrian government and Russian air force, signed up to a ceasefire.

A monitoring group said early on Saturday that fighting appeared to have stopped across most of western Syria, although the country’s state news agency said a car bomb had exploded on the edge of a government-held central town of Salamiyeh, killing two and wounding several others. No one claimed responsibility.

A senior Russian official said it had grounded its warplanes in Syria and established hotlines to exchange information with the US military in order to help monitor the ceasefire.

A Syrian rebel group called First Coastal Division in the country’s northwest said it came under attack from government ground forces at 4am local time (0200 GMT), leaving three fighters dead in what it called a breach of the truce.

Three fighters from the rebel First Coastal Division were killed while repelling the attack in the Jabal Turkman area near the Turkish border in Latakia province, Fadi Ahmad, the group’s spokesman, told Reuters.

The United Nations security council on Friday unanimously demanded that all parties to the civil war in Syria complied with the terms of the US-Russian deal which took effect at midnight as Friday turned to Saturday local time.

UN Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura, briefing the security council by satellite from Geneva, warned that there would be breaches of the ceasefire and all sides had to be prepared to deal with them in a sober way, and work to identify the cause of the breaches.

He said that Saturday would be critical, adding he had “no doubt there will be no shortage of attempts to undermine this process”.

“This will remain a complicated, painstaking process,” he told the council. But he added that “nothing is impossible, especially at this moment.” He said that any military response to the cessation of hostilities would be a “last resort” and “proportionate”.

He also confirmed he will seek to convene peace talks lasting three weeks on 7 March in Geneva.

Lt Gen Sergei Rudskoi of the general staff of Russia’s military said that while Russia will continue air strikes against the Islamic State group and the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida, al-Nusra, it was keeping its aircraft on the ground for now “to avoid any possible mistakes”

The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, earlier attacked the Russians for continuing to ramp up military attacks hours before the ceasefire.

She warned: “Let us be real. It is going to be extremely challenging to make this work, especially at the outset.”

But, in a passionate address, she added: “If this collapses we lose the most tangible opportunity to relieve the suffering.” She added that everyone at the top of the UN had become broken records, demanding the violence end. “Even a partial de-escalation would make a real difference in the lives of Syrians,” she added.

Fighting had continued in western Syria right up to when the agreement went into effect, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Shortly after midnight on Friday, there was calm in many parts of the country, it said. “In Damascus and its countryside … for the first time in years, calm prevails,” Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said. “In Latakia, calm, and at the Hmeimim air base there is no plane activity,” he said in reference to the Latakia base where Russia’s warplanes operate from.

Large areas of Syria will be excluded from the ceasefire, according to the maps being issued by both US and Russian sources on Thursday and Friday, due to the Russian insistence that the Syrian government and Russian air force be able to continue attacks not only against Islamic State but also the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida, al-Nusra Front.

European diplomats acknowledged that al-Nusra was intermingled with more moderate rebel forces, especially in northern Syria, making it hard to delineate the zones that will be excluded from Russian and Syrian assault.

But the cessation is probably the most concerted diplomatic multinational effort to reduce the bloodshed since the war began five years ago and is designed to open the way for the start of UN-sponsored peace talks, on 7 March in Geneva. The UN is also gearing up for a major humanitarian relief effort.

Members of the International Syria Support Group met on Friday in Geneva to discuss the monitoring of the complex ceasefire arrangement agreed by the US and Moscow at the beginning of the week.

The cessation of hostilities came into force at midnight local time (10pm GMT), and has the support of the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, the Kurdish forces in northern Syria, Turkey and the opposition high negotiations committee – the umbrella body that brings together the rebel factions.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has invested personal capital in the process, which has not been the case with previous peace drives.

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