The Syrian government announced a new cease-fire Thursday, effective from midnight, as part of a broader deal that could tamp down violence across the war-ravaged country ahead of a return to peace talks.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reestablished control over the northern city of Aleppo earlier this month, forcing beleaguered rebels to flee what was once their largest stronghold and handing the government a victory that appeared to bring the war’s endgame into view.
The Assad government, backed by Russia and Iran, is in its strongest position since the start of the more than five-year war, while rebel groups are mostly boxed into the northwestern province of Idlib and hold no strategically significant urban areas.
In a statement posted to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, the military declared a “comprehensive” cessation of hostilities to begin early Friday following “victories and advances” by Syria’s armed forces.
The deal was guaranteed by Russia and Turkey, which back the government and its armed opposition respectively, after weeks of negotiations from which the United States was conspicuously absent.
In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the truce a “historic opportunity” that should not be squandered. But in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that the deal was “fragile.”
The Syrian army said it excluded “terrorist organizations,” notably the Islamic State, but also including the country’s al-Qaeda affiliate, an influential component of what remains of Syria’s armed opposition. The caveat suggested that the fighting could continue in Idlib, now the rebels’ final bastion.
Speaking in a televised meeting with his defense and foreign ministers Thursday, Putin said three documents were signed: the cease-fire to begin Friday between the Syrian government and certain rebel groups, an agreement on monitoring the cease-fire and a statement of readiness to begin peace talks.
The State Department said it had played no part in the negotiations, but it called news of the cease-fire a “positive development.” Mark Toner, a department spokesman, said, “We hope it will be implemented fully and respected by all parties.”
As President Obama prepares to leave office next month, Washington’s influence in Syria is much diminished. Moscow and Ankara have taken the lead on initiatives to end a war that has killed almost half a million people, spurred the largest refugee crisis since World War II and spawned a global terrorist threat in the form of the Islamic State.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not mention Obama in his remarks, instead inviting the incoming Trump administration to join the process after the president-elect’s inauguration.
“I would also like to express my hope that when the administration of Donald Trump assumes its responsibilities, they may also join these efforts in order to work toward this goal in a friendly and collective manner,” Lavrov said during the meeting.
Trump has signaled his willingness to work with Moscow on a solution to the Syrian conflict. He is also on record as supporting policies that include a withdrawal of support for the armed opposition and the establishment of so-called “safe zones” for civilians.
The intervention of Russia’s air force last year transformed the Syrian government’s fortunes, quashing a major rebel offensive and turning the war in Damascus’s favor. Although Moscow later announced a partial withdrawal, its air and ground forces continue to play an important role, even as the influence of Assad’s other main backer, Iran, rises.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said seven opposition groups with a combined 60,000 fighters from central and northern Syria have agreed to the cease-fire, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, two powerful Islamist factions.
The exclusion of groups linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda seemed to be the latest attempt to peel jihadist fighters from more moderate elements in the armed opposition.
The al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly called Jabhat al-Nusra, contributes significant firepower to a coalition of rebel groups in Idlib province. U.S. officials believe it may be difficult to separate the extremists fighting alongside a number of key rebel groups.
Previous cease-fires have been short-lived. A similar deal announced by the United States and Russia in February lasted longer than most — but was over by July. Another U.S.-Russian deal in September lasted a week.
The latest deal marks an ambitious venture by the Russian leader to establish his dominant role as dealmaker in the Syrian conflict and further sideline the United States less than a month before Trump’s inauguration.
Syria’s National Coalition, a leading political opposition group based in Turkey, confirmed its support for the truce. A senior official, Hadi al-Bahra, described it as “a positive achievement” in a message posted to Twitter, saying his group would “make sure that this agreement will be implemented fully.”
But as diplomacy continued, so did the fighting. A Syrian rescue group known as the White Helmets said Thursday that at least 12 people were killed and 27 others injured in airstrikes and artillery shelling on civilian homes in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta. Footage from the area showed an elderly man being carried to an ambulance, his blood-soaked scarf streaking the vehicle as his stretcher was placed inside.
Peace efforts in Syria must still survive the many potential pitfalls of the shaky alliance between Russia and Turkey. But if Putin’s gambit to play peacemaker among the bitter regional rivals of the Middle East is successful, it would mark his greatest international achievement to date. To broker a solution to the region’s bloodiest conflict while pointedly excluding the United States would mark an important shift in the international balance of power — one that Putin has called for publicly since he took power in 2000.
Heba Habib in Stockholm contributed to this report.