Syria truce holding, official says
U.N. envoy expects ‘incremental developments’ in new talks
GENEVA — The U. N.’s special envoy for Syrian peace talks on Monday said a U.S. and Russia-brokered ceasefire in the country’s southwest was generally holding despite some “teething problems,” adding that he hoped it would contribute positively to talks between the government and the opposition.
A new round of indirect talks that began Monday is the seventh so far between Syrian government representatives and opposition leaders to try to wind down the 6-year-old civil war. Half of the country’s population has been displaced, and some 400,000 people have been killed in the violence since 2011.
Staffan de Mistura, speaking at a news conference in Geneva, said he is not expecting any breakthroughs but rather “some incremental developments.”
“We believe that de-escalation will be contributing to not only the talks in Geneva and in Astana, of course, but will also reassure the Syrian people that while we are talking, the people are not going to die because of bombs,” de Mistura said.
He cautioned against de-escalation deals leading to eventual partition, saying they should be an interim measure only until an overall cease-fire and peace settlement can be found.
The Geneva talks are expected to last through the week. De Mistura will be shuttling between the two sides, which have not been face to face in the same room except at a ceremony to resume the talks earlier this year.
The U.N.-led diplomatic effort seeks partly to ensure humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria and plan for the day after the war is over. At the news conference, de Mistura avoided questions about any political transition away from President Bashar Assad, saying the talks are focusing on de-escalation and stabilization for now.
The Syrian opposition is determined to achieve a political transition in Damascus, while Assad’s government insists the talks should prioritize “the war on terror.”
The start of the talks in Geneva coincided with the first full day of the cease-fire for southern Syria that was brokered last week by the United States, Russia and Jordan.
Opposition activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh said it was quiet in the city of Daraa, near the Jordanian border. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported light shelling and bombardment in the city overnight.
On Monday, Syrian forces said they had attacked Islamic State fighters in one area covered by the truce, an assertion disputed by local rebels, some of whom have received covert aid from the United States and its allies. They said the area contained no Islamic State fighters.
The latest truce covers three important provinces in Syria’s southwest: Daraa, Quneitra and Sweida. It’s the first tangible outcome after months of strategy and diplomacy between President Donald Trump’s administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Moscow government.
Daraa is where the rebellion against the Assad government began in 2011, and much of its countryside is held by rebel factions, armed and aided by the United States, Jordan and others. An extended halt in violence there would help Jordan make the case for the return of Syrian refugees from its territory.
The United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, welcomed the truce but said it should not be used to push refugees back into Syria until they are ready.
“Notwithstanding this positive development, the secretary-general urges all countries to preserve the right for all Syrians to seek asylum and enjoy refugee protection until conditions are conducive for return in safety and dignity,” his office said in a statement Monday.
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces retook the al-Hail gas field in central Syria from Islamic State militants, the army reported. The government and its Iranian backers have been advancing through Homs province to secure vital resources they lost early in the war. Their declared aim is to relieve Syrian soldiers who have been under Islamic State siege in the city of Deir El-Zour, a regional hub for resource commerce.
In north Syria, at least one person was killed and several others wounded in a barrage of rocket fire and shelling on areas under the control of a U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia. The People’s Protection Units blamed the attack on Turkey. Ankara says the militia is an extension of an outlawed Kurdish insurgent group operating inside its own borders. At least three civilians were killed in shelling on Kurdish villages last week.
Five people were killed in shelling on the nearby city of Aleppo, Syrian state media reported. The government blamed it on rebels encamped outside the city.
Separately, the al-Qaidalinked Levant Liberation Committee group said on social media that it detained 123 Islamic State fighters in northwest Idlib province, a rebel-held corner of the country where the group is largely in control.
U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (right) sits next to U.N. Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy as they attend the opening round of negotiations between representatives of the Syrian government and its opposition at the U.N.’s European headquarters in Geneva on Monday.