Syria truce hold­ing, of­fi­cial says

U.N. en­voy ex­pects ‘in­cre­men­tal de­vel­op­ments’ in new talks

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Jamey Keaten, Philip Issa and Al­bert Aji of The As­so­ci­ated Press; and by Somini Sen­gupta, Ben Hub­bard, Hwaida Saad, Nada Homsi and Is­abel Ker­sh­ner of The New York Times.

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.

AP/SAL­VA­TORE DI NOLFI

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.

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