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Turkey, Russia plan Syria ceasefire before New Year

Key players in the conflict offered an immediate confirmation

SYRIA: Syrian men mourn over the body of a relative at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, following reported air strikes.-AFP

ANKARA: Turkey and Russia are planning to implement a countrywide ceasefire in Syria before the start of the New Year, Turkey’s foreign minister said yesterday, as Ankara and Moscow step up coordination to end the nearly six-year conflict. Although on opposing sides in the conflict, Turkey and Russia have been working intensively to find a ceasefire after the fall of Aleppo to the Syrian regime last week, in a process that conspicuously does not include the United States.

The ceasefire could be put in place “at any moment”, Mevlut Cavusoglu told A Haber television after reports a day earlier that Turkey and Russia had agreed a deal. “We are planning to secure this before the beginning of the New Year,” he said, adding it was the “will of the leaders” for this to happen. Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu said Wednesday that Turkey and Russia had agreed a nationwide truce plan for Syria but none of the key players in the conflict offered an immediate confirmation. Such a nationwide ceasefire would follow the deal brokered by Turkey and Russia for Aleppo which allowed the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians.

‘Complementary step’
Ankara and Moscow have been on opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, with Turkey seeking the ouster of President Bashar Al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran. But the two countries have recently started to cooperate more closely on Syria, especially after a deal in the summer to normalize ties battered by Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane last year. Cavusoglu said if the ceasefire was successful, political negotiations between Assad’s regime and the opposition would take place in the Kazakh capital Astana.

But he insisted the Astana talks, overseen by Turkey and Russia, were not a rival to UN-backed talks that have been taking place on-and-off in Geneva in recent years. “This is not an alternative to Geneva. It is a complementary step,” said Cavusoglu. “The talks in Astana will be under our supervision,” he said, adding which groups will take part remains under discussion. The minister said it was necessary for foreign fighters to leave Syria, including those with the Tehran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. “Hezbollah needs to return to Lebanon,” he said.

‘Out of question’
Cavusoglu said Russia would act as the regime’s “guarantor” in any deal while Turkey would also perform a similar role. But it was not clear whether Iran would sign as a guarantor, Cavusoglu said. With cooperation tightening with Moscow, Turkey stood conspicuously quiet as the regime, supported by Russia, took control last week of Aleppo, handing the rebels their biggest defeat in the civil war so far. The victory was also a boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sent forces to Syria last year to bolster Assad in an unprecedented intervention.

But Cavusoglu said it was “out of the question” for Turkey to hold any talks with Assad. Syria’s conflict began with a 2011 uprising against Assad but quickly morphed into a complicated civil war that has now killed more than 310,000 people and forced millions more from their homes. The conflict continued to rage as civilians were killed in regime strikes yesterday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP in Beirut. The observatory said fighting took place in the morning between rebels and regime forces near Damascus while some seven civilians including three children were killed in regime strikes in several areas of eastern Ghouta near the capital.

‘Not acceptable’    
Ankara’s close cooperation with Moscow comes amid rapidly increasing strains between Turkey and the United States. Turkey launched an ambitious operation in northern Syria on August 24 in support of pro-Ankara Syrian rebels, with the aim of ousting jihadists as well as Kurdish militia from the border area. But Ankara says it has received no support from the US-led coalition as its forces battle to retake the Islamic State (IS) held town of Al Bab, taking increasing casualties.
Cavusoglu hit back at the lack of aerial support from the US-led coalition and repeated accusations Washington was arming the very Kurdish militia Ankara was fighting. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who this week accused Washington of backing IS jihadists, on Thursday again attacked Washington for its “support” for terror organizations. “If you give all kinds of weapons to terrorist organizations in this region and then put a case saying ‘no we are not giving weapons, just giving ammunition’, sorry we will not accept this,” he said.-AFP

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