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Onus on Russia to 'save' Syria peace process

Thaer Mohammed, AFP | A man comforts a boy amid the rubble of buildings following an air strike on a rebel-held neighbourhood in Aleppo, Syria, on February 4, 2016

France and Germany said Friday that the latest peace plan drawn up by world powers for a ceasefire between Syrian government forces and rebels within a week can only work if Russia stops airstrikes in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.


“The accord of last night ... can permit progress if it leads to a ceasefire, if it leads to general humanitarian access and if it includes the stop of the indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian regime and by Russia,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian told a security conference in Munich. Meanwhile, Russian warplanes continued to bomb northern Syria, showing no sign of slowing the pace of attacks.

Germany followed suit in putting the onus on Moscow. "The words must be followed with deeds. And here the (German) government puts Russia first under the obligation to do so," Christiane Wirzt, a spokeswoman for the German government, said.

"Through its military action on the side of Assad's regime, Russia had recently seriously compromised the political process. Now there is a chance to save this process with the expectation that in the period before a full ceasefire, there would not be heightened attacks," she said.

But Russia has made it clear from the outset that the “cessation” would not apply to its air strikes because the deal does not apply to the Islamic State (IS) group and the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group, the Nusra Front – the two jihadist groups it insists are the only targets of its air campaign.

Western countries, meanwhile, say Russia has in fact been mostly targeting other insurgent groups, including some that that have the support of the former.

Russia began its air campaign over the opposition-held city of Aleppo on February 1. According to observers, some 500 people have been killed since.

“Russia has mainly targeted opposition groups and not ISIL (IS group). Air strikes of Russian planes against different opposition groups in Syria have actually undermined the efforts to reach a negotiated, peaceful solution,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Syrian government forces, which also enjoy Lebanese and Iranian backing, are now poised to recapture Aleppo and seal off the border with Turkey.

Those two victories would reverse years of insurgent gains and effectively end rebel hopes of dislodging President Assad through force, the cause they have fought for since 2011 with the encouragement of Arab states, Turkey and the West.

Many countries fear that in the week running up to the implementation of the agreement, Damascus and its Russian ally will still have time to press on with the offensive.

‘Rebels need to decide on truce’

In addition, the “cessation of hostilities” agreement struck in Munich fell short of formulating a formal ceasefire since it was not signed by the main warring parties – the opposition and government forces.

George Sabra, a leading member of the key Syrian opposition body High Negotiations Committee (HNC), on Friday said that the rebels in Syria "are the ones who will decide on the implementation of this truce".

"The project of a temporary truce to halt hostilities will be examined with the rebel factions on the ground," he said.

The HNC is an umbrella group of opposition bodies and figures formed in Riyadh to negotiate at peace talks in Geneva that collapsed earlier this month. The rebels have said that they will not return to the talks, scheduled for February 25, unless government sieges and air strikes end.

If the Syria "cessation of hostilities" deal is implemented, however, it would allow for humanitarian aid to reach besieged towns. It also has the potential to be the first diplomatic breakthrough in a conflict that has fractured the Middle East, killed at least 250,000 people, made 11 million homeless and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing into Europe.


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