Signalling a thaw? Obama, Putin discuss Syrian crisis, arrive at agreement on terms for ceasefire

Washington: In a call initiated by Kremlin, US President Barack Obama today spoke with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss efforts to establish a nation-wide "cessation of hostilities" between the Syrian regime and its armed opposition, the White House said.

Signalling a thaw? Obama, Putin discuss Syrian crisis, arrive at agreement on terms for ceasefire

File image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama. Reuters

During the call, Obama welcomed that an understanding was reached between the US, Russia, as well as other partners in the International Syria Support Group on the terms and modalities for such a cessation of hostilities in the war-torn country from 27 February. "Obama emphasised that the priority now was to ensure positive responses by the Syrian regime and armed opposition
as well as faithful implementation by all parties in order to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, galvanise UN-led political process, and focus on defeating the Islamic State," the White House said.

Obama also stressed the importance of the fulfilment by  combined Russian-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine of their obligations under the Minsk agreements, particularly honouring the ceasefire and permitting the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) full access to the conflict area including the international border, the White House said.

Obama underscored the importance of quickly reaching agreement on modalities for holding free and fair elections in eastern Ukraine that meet OSCE standards, the White House said.

In a landmark announcement, the US and Russia today said that the Syria ceasefire would begin at midnight Damascus time (2200 GMT Friday; 3.30 am on Saturday IST) and would apply to parties to the conflict that have committed to the deal - but not to the Islamic State group or Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Will ceasefire hold? 

There was no immediate reaction from Damascus, but the main grouping of opposition factions said it "agreed to respond positively to international efforts to reach a truce deal".

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said he was sceptical that the ceasefire would succeed.

"It is difficult for me to see a ceasefire while Daesh (the Islamic State group) and Al-Nusra Front (the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate) are not part of the process and the Russians say they will strike both organisations," he said in a statement.

The rise of IS, which has seized large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq and become the preeminent global jihadist group, has focused attention on the need for a solution.

Analysts also had reservations about the deal.

"This depends entirely on the good faith of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, none of whom have shown much good faith in the last five years," Frederic C Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who formerly worked on US Syria policy, told the New York Times.

Russia began air strikes in Syria last September against what it said were "terrorists", but has been accused of bombing non-jihadist rebel forces in support of Assad, a longtime ally.

Iran has sent military advisers to Syria and the Tehran-backed Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah has deployed at least 6,000 militants to fight alongside Assad's forces.

The 17-nation International Syria Support Group backing Syria's peace process agreed at a meeting in Munich earlier this month to implement a ceasefire by last week, but that truce never materialised.

Hopes for humanitarian aid 

The opposition High Negotiations Committee said its commitment to the truce was conditional on the lifting of sieges, the release of prisoners, a halt to bombardment of civilians and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

A convoy of 44 trucks carrying humanitarian aid had entered Moadamiyet al-Sham, near Damascus, overseen by the Red Crescent and the United Nations, on Monday, state news agency SANA reported.

Once the cessation of hostilities takes hold, the UN would work to secure "access to as many places as possible in order to deliver humanitarian aid", UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The ceasefire announcement came just a day after IS claimed responsibility for two deadly attacks in regime-held areas, which a monitor said killed 134 people near a shrine south of Damascus and at least 64 in Homs.

The shrine bombings marked the deadliest jihadist attack since Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Shortly after the truce was announced, Assad issued a decree for parliamentary elections to be held on April 13.

The last such elections were held in May 2012 and although multiple parties were allowed to stand, most of the 250 lawmakers who were elected were from the ruling Baath party.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Feb 23, 2016 11:12:17 IST

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