Russia urges speedy UN resolution on Syria truce
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Russia urges speedy UN resolution on Syria truce

Shaky ceasefire holds ahead of Astana peace negotiations aimed at supplementing international efforts

Syrian men gather in the rebel-held town of Saqba, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus, during a demonstration against the Syrian regime, on December 30, 2016, on the first day of a nationwide truce. (AFP/Sameer Al-Doumy)
Syrian men gather in the rebel-held town of Saqba, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus, during a demonstration against the Syrian regime, on December 30, 2016, on the first day of a nationwide truce. (AFP/Sameer Al-Doumy)

IDLIB, Syria (AFP) — Russia was hoping for a swift UN Security Council vote to bolster its fragile Syria ceasefire Saturday, though diplomats expressed doubt the resolution would pass so quickly or be unanimous.

Moscow says it wants the UN involved in the peace talks between Damascus and rebels it has scheduled to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan in January, although the UN is negotiating its own separate peace efforts slated for February.

The ceasefire, which came into effect Thursday midnight, was holding across most of Syria, though clashes near Damascus underlined the fragility of the deal brokered by rebel supporter Turkey and key regime ally Russia.

Ankara and Moscow say the Astana talks are meant to supplement UN-backed peace efforts, rather than replace them, and want to involve regional players like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan.

Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin voiced hope that the council could vote Saturday “and adopt it unanimously.”

Diplomats however, said they did not see how a quick UN weekend vote could occur as the resolution needed to be “seriously studied” and hinted Russia might be hard-pressed to muster the nine votes needed for it to pass.

Washington is conspicuously absent from the new process, but Moscow has said it hoped to bring US President-elect Donald Trump’s administration on board once he takes office in January.

On the first day of the ceasefire Friday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported sporadic violence in the Wadi Barada area, where rebels have cut water supplies to Damascus leaving four million people without water.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said helicopters carried out raids on rebel positions but it was unclear which side had started the clashes.

The forces there include former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, previously known as Al-Nusra Front, which Syria’s government says is excluded from the ceasefire.

Opposition figures however say the truce applies to all rebel-held territory, even where Fateh al-Sham is present.

The clashes in Wadi Barada were the most serious of several isolated incidents of violence since the truce began.

The Observatory also reported at least 16 government air strikes across several areas in Hama province in central Syria, with no casualties, but said a person was killed by regime sniper fire in the rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

In rebel-held Idlib province, however, it was quiet and residents expressed hope for respite from the bloody conflict.

“I support the ceasefire… and I support its continuation,” said 31-year-old Ahmed Astify. “Everyone, whether (they are) rebels or regular people, is tired,” he added.

Mohammed, 28, said: “We hope that this will lead to the end of the war.”

Syria’s government and its ally Iran both welcomed the ceasefire deal.

Damascus called it a “real opportunity” to find a political solution to the war, which has killed more than 310,000 people since it began in March 2011 with protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite being left out of the process, Washington described the truce as “positive”.

Analysts were cautious but said the involvement of Russia, Iran and Turkey could be important.

Sam Heller, fellow at The Century Foundation, said there was “real interest and urgency” from Moscow and Ankara, but expressed doubts about whether Tehran and Damascus were on board.

“All indications are that Iran and the regime want to continue towards a military conclusion,” he said.

He said renewed fighting in Wadi Barada or Eastern Ghouta could pose major threats to the truce.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he would now reduce Moscow’s military contingent in Syria, which has been fighting to bolster the government since last year.

But he added Russia would continue to fight “terrorism” and maintain its support for the government.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also said Ankara would continue the operation it began in August targeting the Islamic State group and Kurdish fighters.

Moscow says seven key rebel groups have signed up to the deal, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham.

Despite backing opposite sides in the conflict, Turkey and Russia have worked increasingly closely on Syria, brokering a deal this month to allow the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians and rebel fighters from Aleppo.

Their ceasefire deal calls for negotiations over a political solution to end the conflict that has killed more than 310,000 people and forced millions to flee.

UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has said he hoped the agreement would “pave the way for productive talks”, but also reiterated he wants negotiations mediated by his office to continue next year.

The council held closed-door consultations on the text early Friday and Russia later amended the draft at the request of several member states.

The latest draft of the resolution, a copy of which was seen by AFP, includes a reference to the talks being led by de Mistura.

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