‘Last chance’ ceasefire comes into effect in Syria
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A nationwide ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia went into effect in Syria on Monday evening, with US Secretary of State John Kerry warning this could be the “last chance” to end the country’s five-year civil war.
Syria's armed forces immediately announced a seven-day "freeze" on military operations, but opposition forces have yet to formally sign on.
Combatant sources on both sides said calm was prevailing in the first hours of the ceasefire. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said it was "quiet" on nearly all fronts.
Under the deal, fighting will halt in areas not held by jihadists and aid deliveries to besieged areas will begin, with all sides specifically ensuring unimpeded humanitarian access to the war-torn city of Aleppo.
The ceasefire will be renewed every 48 hours and, if it holds for a week, Moscow and Washington will begin unprecedented joint targeting of jihadist forces, including the IS group.
The agreement, announced Friday after marathon talks between Russia and the US, has been billed as the best chance yet to halt a war that has claimed more than 290,000 lives and displaced half the country’s population.
But its fragility was underscored when just hours before sunset President Bashar al-Assad, who has officially backed the ceasefire, vowed to retake the whole country from "terrorists".
Speaking at the State Department in Washington, Kerry said early reports pointed to a reduction in violence on Monday evening, though cautioning that it was “too early to draw any definitive conclusions”.
"There will undoubtedly be reports of violations here or there but that is the nature of the beginning of the ceasefire almost always," Kerry said.
The US secretary of state said humanitarian assistance needed to get underway immediately, particularly in all areas of Aleppo.
"I don't think I have to spell out how urgent this assistance is, in some cases literally the difference between life and death for tens of thousands of people," he added.
Humanitarian agencies have voiced cautious optimism for the deal, which could see aid deliveries to the country's many inaccessible areas, particularly the divided and devastated city of Aleppo, where violence peaked over the weekend.
“I think anything that can bring some respite to the violence and that can really have the consent of all parties is important, and we’re hopeful that it can work,” Krista Armstrong, spokeswoman for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told FRANCE 24.
“First of all, we need security guarantees from all parties and we need the ceasefire to hold so we can get into different areas – not just for 48 hours, but to assess needs and then come back with the basics like food, as well as equipment and tools to repair water and sanitation facilities,” Armstrong added.
Assad vows to retake terrain
Kerry said the truce was designed to enable warring sides to resume negotiations on a political transition in Syria, but Syria's opposition and rebels remain deeply sceptical and have yet to endorse the US-Russia brokered deal.
Salem al-Muslet, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee opposition umbrella group, demanded "guarantees" on which rebel groups would be targeted.
Rebels on Sunday sent a letter to Washington saying they would "deal positively with the idea of the ceasefire" but listed several "concerns" and stopped short of a full endorsement.
"The clauses of the agreement that have been shared with us do not include any clear guarantees or monitoring mechanisms... or repercussions if there are truce violations," they said.
A crucial part of the deal calls for rebels to distance themselves from the jihadist Fateh al-Sham Front – previously known as Al-Nusra Front – before joint US-Russian operations begin.
But Fateh al-Sham cooperates closely with many of Syria's rebels, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham faction, which on Sunday issued a scathing condemnation of the Russian-US deal.
In the opposing camp, Syria's government and its allies including Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement have backed the truce, though Assad made clear on Monday he was still intent on recapturing all of Syria.
"The armed forces are continuing their work, relentlessly and without hesitation, regardless of internal or external circumstances," Assad said Monday as he toured Daraya, a former rebel stronghold that surrendered last month after a four-year government siege.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)