The UN Security Council voted unanimously, with less than hour to spare, to endorse a Russian and American-brokered cessation of hostilities deal in Syria. In doing so, it insisted that the factions of the country's five-year civil war respect the agreement, which took effect at midnight in Damascus.
Staffan de Mistura, special envoy of the secretary-general for Syria, told the council prior to the vote that he he hoped to reconvene talks between President Bashar al-Assad's government and opposition groups on Monday, February 7. Earlier this month, de Mistura abruptly closed a first round of negotiations after opposition representatives walked out — a protest, they said, of continued Russian and and regime bombardment in Aleppo and elsewhere in the country.
For now, all eyes will be on Syria's various fronts, where regime soldiers, their allies — including Hezbollah fighters, Shia militias, and the Russian air force — as well as myriad rebel groups are all expected to stop fighting one another.
However, the nationwide cessation does not include the Islamic State or the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which would both continue to be targeted. Opposition fighters, including members of the Free Syrian Army, have expressed concern that attacks by Russia and the Syrian regime ostensibly aimed at Nusrah Front could end up hitting more moderate rebels who are observing the ceasefire. Unlike the Islamic State, Nusrah Front is marbled into rebel controlled areas, and is a member of a prominent opposition coalition.
Should fighting continue or break out against parties who are adhering to the agreement, it could doom the talks that de Mistura has planned for February 7. As co-chairs of both the International Syria Support Group and its ceasefire task force, the US and Russia will be charged with handling reported violations and attempting to prevent them from worsening.
The meeting on Friday afternoon was postponed by more than a half-hour as the US and Russia wrangled over last-minute changes to the text. The delay, said multiple Security Council diplomats, was over Russia's insistence that two references to the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) be excised from the resolution. In the end, the Russians got what they wanted, over objections from France and the United Kingdom, whose ambassadors both called the decision regrettable in speeches before the council.
After the meeting, a spokesperson for the US mission said they had agreed to take out references to the HNC and meetings in Riyadh in exchange for the omission of peace efforts coordinated in Moscow and Cairo.
Several council members complained about Russian and Syrian strikes that continued right up until the start of the truce. French Ambassador Francois Delattre called the attacks a "bad omen." Earlier, Delattre told reporters that the agreement "should not be another smokescreen allowing some to crush Syrian civilians and the opposition in all impunity."
"We should not forget that 1,380 civilians have been killed and 5,789 injured by Russian and Regime airstrikes since Russia began its campaign in Syria, including attacks on at least three IDP and refugee camps," said UK Ambassador Matthew Rycroft.
US Ambassador Samantha Power said that skepticism of the cessation "is more than reasonable given previous efforts" at the council that failed. She added, however, that the "major armed Syrian opposition groups" had confirmed their acceptance of the terms of the agreement, either to the HNC or directly to Washington.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said that the cessation agreement offered a "real chance to end violence and to step up our collective combat against terrorism." But he also pointed to various stumbling blocks, repeating Moscow's concerns of cross-border flows from Turkey, and said that there could be no preconditions on the part of opposition factions during the implementation of the agreement.
De Mistura's remarks about the cessation of hostilities, which he delivered by video conference from Geneva, were framed cautiously.
"We hope it will be respected," he said. "It will not only create conditions for the resumption of meaningful negotiations, but it will above all send a long-awaited signal of hope to the Syrian people that after five years of conflict there may be an end and hope to ending their suffering."
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