MOSCOW/ANKARA (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a ceasefire between Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government starting at midnight on Thursday.
The parties were also prepared to start peace talks, Putin said, after Moscow, Iran and Turkey expressed readiness to broker a deal to settle the nearly six-year-old Syrian war.
The Syrian army announced a nationwide halt to fighting but said Islamic State and ex-Nusra Front militants and all groups linked to them would be excluded from the deal. It did not say which unnamed groups would be excluded.
Several rebel officials told Reuters they had agreed to the ceasefire, due to come into effect at 2200 GMT on Thursday.
It was the third nationwide ceasefire agreed in Syria this year. The previous two, negotiated by Washington and Moscow, collapsed within weeks as warring sides accused each other of violations. The current deal does not involve the United States or United Nations.
One rebel commander expressed optimism that this deal would hold: “This time I have confidence in its seriousness. There is new international input,” he said, without elaborating.
Talks on the latest truce picked up momentum after Russia, Iran and Turkey last week said they were ready to back a peace deal and adopted a declaration setting out principles that any agreement should adhere to.
Putin said opposition groups and the Syrian government had signed a number of documents, including the ceasefire, measures to monitor the truce, and a statement on readiness to start peace talks.
“The agreements reached are, of course, fragile, need a special attention and involvement… But after all, this is a notable result of our joint work, efforts by the defense and foreign ministries, our partners in the regions,” Putin said.
He also said Russia had agreed to reduce its military deployment in Syria, where its support has turned the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad in a war that has killed more than 300,000 and forced more than 11 million to flee their homes.
Turkey said it and Russia would guarantee the ceasefire.
“With this agreement, parties have agreed to cease all armed attacks, including aerial, and have promised not to expand the areas they control against each other,” the Turkish foreign ministry said.
Three rebel officials told Reuters the deal excluded Islamic State, but did include the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, formerly al Qaeda’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front – appearing to contradict the Syrian army’s statement.
Russia’s defense ministry said the insurgent groups that signed the agreement included the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, which operates primarily near Damascus, and Jabha Shamiya, one of the main groups that has operated in Aleppo.
The United States has been sidelined in recent negotiations and is not due to attend the next round of peace talks in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, a key Russian ally.
Its exclusion reflects growing frustration from both Turkey and Russia over Washington’s policy on Syria, officials have said.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States could join the peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month.
Talks on the ceasefire reflect the complexity of Syria’s civil war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on all sides.
Turkey and Russia support different sides in the war. Ankara has insisted on the departure of Assad, who is backed by Russia.
Likewise, demands that troops from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement leave Syria may not please Iran, another major supporter of Assad. Hezbollah troops have been fighting alongside Syrian government forces against rebels opposed to Assad.
“All foreign fighters need to leave Syria. Hezbollah needs to return to Lebanon,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
Sources have told Reuters that, under an outline deal between the three countries, Syria could be divided into informal zones of regional power and Assad would remain president for at least a few years.
Meanwhile, disagreements remain between big powers.
Ankara supports the Free Syrian Army, a loose alliance of rebel groups, some of which it is backing in operations in northern Syria designed to sweep Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish fighters from its southern border.
The United States is backing the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, a move that has infuriated Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara fears that advances by Kurdish fighters in Syria could inflame militants at home.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has accused the United States of supporting terrorism in Syria, including Islamic State, comments that Washington has dismissed as “ludicrous”.
“We, as Turkey, have been calling on Western nations for some time to not distinguish between terrorist organizations and to be principled and consistent in their stance,” Erdogan said in a speech on Thursday.
“Some countries, namely the United States, have come up with some excuses on their own and overtly supported the organizations that massacre innocent people in our region.”
(Additional reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Humeyra Pamuk and Daren Butler in Istanbul, Lisa Barrington, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by David Dolan, John Davison and Giles Elgood; Editing by Anna Willard)
IMAGE: Children play near rubble of damaged buildings in al-Rai town, northern Aleppo countryside, Syria December 25, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi