Syria ceasefire holds despite scattered fighting

Clashes near source of Damascus's water supply in Wadi Barada as rebels and government accuse each other of damaging infrastructure.

A man cycles past damaged buildings in the rebel-held city of Douma on December 30, 2016, the first day of a fresh ceasefire in Syria. Bassam Khabieh / Reuters
Powered by automated translation

BEIRUT // A nationwide ceasefire between rebel and government forces in Syria appeared to hold on its first day on Friday, despite outbursts of violence in some parts of the country.

The ceasefire, brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran, took effect at midnight Thursday. Russia said rebel groups representing more than 60,000 fighters had agreed to abide by the deal.

Despite the ceasefire, clashes occurred in Hama province on Friday, as well as in Wadi Barada, an area north-west of the capital that controls the water supply for Damascus.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government planes carried out at least 16 air strikes on Hama province on Friday.

The head of the monitoring service, Rami Abdul Rahman, said clashes were continuing in Wadi Barada, with Syrian government forces targeting rebel forces and the extremist Jabhat Fatah Al Sham group with helicopters.

Jabhat Fatah Al Sham was Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch until July and is excluded from the ceasefire. However, the extremist group is allied with a number of rebel factions across the country and the Syrian government said it would continue to target the group’s “affiliates” during the ceasefire.

The Syrian government claims that rebels have attacked water infrastructure in Wadi Barada, affecting the capital’s main supply.

Earlier this week, Osama Abo Zeid, a rebel spokesman now based in Turkey, accused the regime of shelling infrastructure in the area, depriving nearby villages, as well as Damascus, of water. Rebels say 100,000 people are besieged in the area and, according to Mr Abo Zeid, “there can be no military success in Wadi Barada” for the opposition forces.

The United Nations on Thursday warned that four million Damascus residents were without water after the deliberate shelling of water infrastructure in Wadi Barada and the neighbouring Ain Fijeh springs.

Aleppo, recaptured by government forces just over a week ago, also saw its water supply cut on Friday, with the Syrian government accusing ISIL of shutting off a water treatment centre on the Euphrates River.

While both rebel and government forces across the country are taking advantage of this apparently open-ended ceasefire to rest and reflect, keeping their guns quiet promises to be a difficult task. Several ceasefires earlier this year dissolved into violence largely because of the rebels’ deep distrust of the government. Rebels accused pro-government forces of using earlier truces to prepare for their ultimately successful offensive on Aleppo. And Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, which is excluded from the ceasefire and any potential political settlement, could seek to ruin the ceasefire and drag its allies back into fighting with the government for its own gain.

But if the ceasefire in Syria does continue to hold, it could pave the way for peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana.

Russia on Friday submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council supporting the ceasefire as well as the planned peace talks in Kazakhstan. The council has begun consultations on the text and a vote was expected on Saturday, Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said.

While the United States was sidelined from the talks between Turkey, Iran and Russia which produced this ceasefire, Ankara’s foreign minister on Friday said representatives from Washington would be welcome at the Astana talks.

Relations between the US and its ally Turkey degenerated this week with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan claiming to have evidence that the US was supporting ISIL as well as Kurdish YPG forces. Turkey also complained that the US was not providing Turkish forces and Ankara-backed rebel groups with air support in their fight to take the ISIL-held Syrian town of Al Bab – a claim that was quickly followed by Russian air strikes on extremist positions around the town.

Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in the war in Syria, but since replacing America as the chief international advocate for the rebels, Turkey has been party to successful negotiations regarding the withdrawal of besieged civilians and rebel fighters from eastern Aleppo as well as the latest ceasefire. With Turkish forces in Syria and their proxies confining their battle to ISIL and the Kurdish YPG – and not attacking the Syrian government – Russia has been increasingly open to helping Turkey and exploiting rifts with Washington.

On Friday, Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim said he hoped the current truce that his country hammered out with Moscow and Tehran would establish peace in Syria.

“I hope this ceasefire will turn into a sustainable peace that would prevent further bloodshed and the killing of civilians, innocents and children,” he said according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

In an interview with Italy’s TG5 television station, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad said he remained cautiously optimistic about the presidency of Donald Trump and that Syria could see a “solution” if ties between Russia and the US improved under the Trump administration.

“If there’s good relation between these two great powers, most of the world, including small countries like Syria, will be the beneficiary of this relation,” he said according to a transcript provided by Syria’s state-run Sana news service on Friday. “In that regard, we can say there will be a solution in Syria.”

* with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters​