BEIRUT — A nationwide Syrian ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect at midnight held Friday despite minor violations, marking a potential breakthrough in a conflict that has disregarded high-level peace initiatives for over five years.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes early Friday between troops and rebels in the central province of Hama and near the capital, Damascus. It said that later in the day a man was killed by sniper fire in eastern suburbs of Damascus, becoming the first fatality since the truce went into effect. The group also reported an aerial attack on the rebel-held Barada Valley near Damascus.
The Syrian army denied reports it was bombarding the Barada Valley region saying opposition claims aim to show that the army is not abiding by the truce.
Opposition activist Mazen al-Shami, who is based in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said minor clashes nearby left one rebel wounded. Activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh, in the southern Daraa province, said government forces had opened fire on rebel-held areas.
Several past attempts at halting the fighting have failed. As with previous agreements, the current ceasefire excludes both the al-Qaida-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front, which fights alongside other rebel factions, and the Islamic State group.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that the ceasefire will be guaranteed by both Moscow and Turkey, and the agreement has been welcomed by Iran. Moscow and Tehran provide crucial military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has long served as a rear base and source of supplies for the rebels.
If it holds, the truce between the Syrian government and the country’s mainstream rebel forces will be followed by peace talks next month in Kazakhstan, Putin said in announcing the agreement. He described it, however, as “quite fragile” and requiring “special attention and patience”.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the ceasefire a “major achievement” in a tweet Friday. “Let’s build on it by tackling the roots of extremist terror,” he added.
Russia said the deal was signed by seven of Syria’s major rebel factions, though none of them immediately confirmed it, and one denied signing it.
At UN headquarters in New York, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin circulated a draft resolution that would endorse the ceasefire agreement and said he hoped for a vote Saturday morning. But several council members said they needed time to study the agreement and the resolution so it wasn’t clear when a vote would take place.
UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien urged the Syrian government in an interview with The Associated Press to give the green light for the United Nations to deliver aid to thousands in need in the war-ravaged country and ensure aid workers’ safety.
He called the cessation of hostilities “extremely welcome” and said “incessant and relentless contacts are going on” with the government, but so far there has been no positive response.
Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, told AP the UN especially wants to get aid to the 15 besieged areas where some 700,000 people live, but it needs security guarantees from all sides “and we’re not given them”.
“The reports I have from the field is that there is a decrease, a marked decrease in fighting, in bombing, in violence, compared to yesterday. But certainly there’s been a number of violations,” he said.
“January needs to be really different,” Egeland stressed. “If not — there will be starvation, there will be untold, unnecessary deaths.”
The truce came on the heels of a Russian-Turkish agreement earlier this month to evacuate the last rebels from eastern Aleppo after they were confined to a tiny enclave by a government offensive. The retaking of all of Aleppo marked Assad’s greatest victory since the start of the 2011 uprising against his family’s four-decade rule.
“The defeat of the terrorists in Aleppo is an important step toward ending the war,” Assad said in an interview with TG5, an Italian TV station, adding that the capture of the city does not mean that the war has ended because “terrorists” are still in Syria.
The United States was left out of both agreements, reflecting the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington after the failure of previous diplomatic efforts on Syria.