The US and Russia have brokered a cessation of hostilities agreement meant to involve the Syrian government and major rebel factions that they hope will take effect this weekend.
The agreement aims for a cessation of hostilities to begin on Saturday, February 27 at midnight local time, but still requires armed actors, including the government of Bashar al-Assad and its allies, and an assortment of armed rebel groups, to get on board.
In a joint statement released on Monday afternoon, the US and Russia — co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and its Ceasefire Task Force — said that any group fighting in Syria and not designated by the Security Council as a terrorist organization, such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, had to express their "commitment to and acceptance of the terms of hostilities" by no later than noon on February 26 – 12 hours before the start of the truce.
The joint statement said the US and Russia "are prepared to work together to exchange pertinent information," to protect those parties who adhere to the agreement, and ensure they are not attacked by "Russian Armed Forces, the US-led Counter ISIL Coalition, the Armed Forces of Syrian government and any other forces supporting them, and other parties to the cessation of hostilities."
The statement added that the US and Russia would establish a hotline for warring parties to report violations, and said that the two countries were "prepared… to develop effective mechanisms to promote and monitor compliance with the ceasefire."
Military activity, including airstrikes, carried out by the US-led coalition, the Russian air force and the Syrian government would continue to be authorized against Islamic State, Nusra Front and other designated terrorist groups. In recent months, Western diplomats have accused Russia of largely targeting what they consider the moderate Syrian opposition and the Syrian government has consistently referred to most of their opponents as "terrorists." Unlike Islamic State fighters, Nusra Front is in many areas interspersed among other, more moderate rebel groups, raising fears that Russia or the Syrian government could continue attacking those factions while claiming to be targeting the al Qaeda affiliate.
While Monday's developments marked another significant agreement brokered by the ISSG, the group does not including representatives of Syria's warring parties, including the government and opposition forces the US considers moderate. Peace talks involving regime diplomats and the opposition broke down in Geneva earlier this month prior to the start of negotiations, and fighting has only grown worse since then. At the time, opposition leaders and their Western backers said that no talks could take place in good faith during stepped-up regime and Russian offensives.
On Monday, according to the Associated Press, the leader of the principal Saudi-backed opposition alliance, the High Negotiations Committee, had agreed "in principle," to the truce.
As has been the case since the ISSG first laid out a roadmap for a ceasefire and political transition in November, the detente would not involve recognized terrorists groups including the Islamic State and Nusra Front. On Sunday, IS claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in suburban Damascus and Homs that left close to 130 people dead.
The announcement comes after members of the ISSG — including the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran — announced on February 12 that an ISSG task force would "within one week elaborate modalities" for a nationwide cessation of hostilities, but that deadline passed with no deal.
According to American officials, Russia had pushed for a truce by March; Washington and opposition groups insisted that it take effect immediately, citing this month's Russian-backed onslaught by regime and allied forces in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria. According to UN figures, more than 50,000 people have been displaced in Aleppo governorate, as regime forces closer to encircling Aleppo City.
Last week, UN aid convoys reached five towns with humanitarian supplies, in what was billed as a confidence building measure ahead of a cessation of hostilities. On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that following conversations with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, "we have reached a provision agreement on the terms of a cessation of hostilities that could begin in the coming days."
If it works, the cessation would mark the first time during five years of war that a large number of armed actors and the government temporarily lay down their weapons nation-wide. However, the agreement announced on Monday by the US and Russia does not prohibit fighting in the coming week prior to the cessation's start – something that could endanger the chances of a lasting ceasefire.