Rus­sia-bro­kered cease-fire brings halt to Syria fight­ing.

As­sad, op­posed by U.S., may stay in power

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUNOZ This ar­ti­cle is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

Rus­sian-backed Syr­ian forces and anti-gov­ern­ment rebels have laid down their arms as part of the lat­est cease-fire pact aimed at end­ing the six-year con­flict in the war-torn na­tion.

The na­tion­wide cease-fire, which went into ef­fect at mid­night Fri­day, was bro­kered by Rus­sian and Turk­ish diplo­mats along­side rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s regime and mod­er­ate rebel forces bat­tling to oust him from power. The U.S., which has backed the rebel forces and de­manded Mr. As­sad step down, was not present for the key ne­go­ti­a­tions, which fol­lowed ma­jor bat­tle­field ad­vances by the gov­ern­ment.

The deal does not cover Is­lamic State forces, which claim the Syr­ian city of Raqqa as their de facto cap­i­tal, or the for­merly al Qaeda-af­fil­i­ated Jab­hat Fateh al-Sham ex­trem­ist groups. Both re­main tar­gets of Amer­i­can and Turk­ish-led of­fen­sives in the coun­try.

It is the third ma­jor cease-fire deal at­tempted by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in Syria. A U.S.-backed Syr­ian peace pact in Septem­ber fo­cused on end­ing the fight­ing in the for­mer rebel stronghold in Aleppo, but fell apart within days af­ter an airstrike de­stroyed a U.N. aid con­voy head­ing into the besieged city.

But this month’s ear­lier cease-fire deal for Aleppo — also ne­go­ti­ated by Moscow and Ankara — has thus far held, with thou­sands of civil­ians and rebel fight­ers be­ing evac­u­ated from the bat­tle-scarred city.

Fur­ther­more, should the ten­u­ous coun­try­wide deal hold, Rus­sia has agreed to host one-on-one talks be­tween Mr. As­sad and rebel lead­ers next month in Kaza­khstan, The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported.

Those talks, along with Moscow’s un­wa­ver­ing sup­port for the regime, will likely en­sure Mr. As­sad will re­main in power in a post­war Syria — some­thing the Obama White House has ve­he­mently op­posed.

Syr­ian For­eign Min­is­ter Walid al-Moallem wel­comed the cease-fire agree­ment, say­ing there is a “real chance” for a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment, The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported from Beirut.

He told Syr­ian TV that Da­m­as­cus will at­tend the peace talks in the Kazakh cap­i­tal of As­tana “with an open mind,” but sug­gested it would not be will­ing to com­pro­mise on Mr. As­sad’s fate.

“Ev­ery­thing is ne­go­tiable ex­cept na­tional sovereignty and the peo­ple’s right to choose its lead­er­ship,” he said.

The U.N. spe­cial en­voy for Syria, Staffan de Mis­tura, wel­comed the cease-fire an­nounce­ment, telling the AP he hopes the agree­ment will save civil­ian lives, fa­cil­i­tate the de­liv­ery of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid and pave the way for pro­duc­tive peace talks.

Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s in­com­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion has al­ready ex­pressed will­ing­ness to work more closely with Moscow on Syria, while ques­tion­ing the wis­dom of back­ing the di­vided and of­ten shad­owy rebel op­po­si­tion forces. The cease­fire was an­nounced just hours be­fore Pres­i­dent Obama au­tho­rized sweep­ing new sanc­tions against Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and of­fi­cials for al­legedly try­ing to hack into U.S. elec­tions sys­tems.

In a sign of the warm­ing ties that helped pro­duce the lat­est break­through, Moscow an­nounced Thurs­day that Rus­sian and Turk­ish com­man­ders in Syria have es­tab­lished a “hot­line” in or­der to mon­i­tor com­pli­ance with the deal, the AP re­ported.

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