Syrian army extends ceasefire in the south

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A Syrian soldier stands near an army helmet decorated with the Syrian flag in the Jab al-Jandali district of the central city of Homs. File photo: AFP

The Syrian army said on Thursday it had extended a unilateral suspension of combat operations in southern Syria through the end of Saturday.

However, rebels said the ceasefire had already been violated by strikes on areas under their control.

The Syrian Army had announced on Monday that it had temporarily halted combat operations in the south of the country, ahead of a Kremlin-sponsored peace conference.

It was the second unilateral ceasefire in two weeks, but unlike the first declaration extended beyond Deraa city to the whole of southern Syria, including the strategic southwestern Quneitra province near the border with Israel and Sweida province in the southeast.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, confirmed that fighting had “almost completely stopped” in the three Governorates.

A spokesman for the Southern Front, a coalition of Free Syrian Army groups, has expressed doubt on whether the Syrian Army and its Iranian allies would halt attacks on the front lines in Deraa and Quneitra.

“The Free Syrian Army is very distrustful of the regime’s intentions in abiding by the ceasefire,” Major Issam al-Rayes told the Reuters news agency. “[This ceasefire] will end like the previous one.”

The Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions from their homes since it began in March 2011.

Safe Zones

Powerbrokers Russia, Iran and Turkey struggled Wednesday to hammer out details on a plan for safe zones in Syria at a fifth round of peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

Moscow and Tehran, which back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and rebel supporter Ankara agreed in May to establish four “de-escalation” zones in a potential breakthrough towards calming a war that has claimed an estimated 320,000 lives since March 2011.

While fighting dropped off in the weeks after the deal, it has ratcheted up in some areas since, and the international players have yet to finalize the boundaries of the zones or determine who will police them.

In a bid to thrash out the details of the plan, participants were holding a string of closed-door meetings for a second day in Astana, with a joint session bringing together all players, including representatives of the Syria regime and rebels later Wednesday.

Rebel representatives at the talks were tight-lipped about progress, with one delegation member telling AFP only that “bilateral discussions are ongoing”.

But a source close to the Syrian rebel delegation told AFP that Turkey, Russia and Iran had “prepared seven documents to help implement a ceasefire in Syria and deploy ground forces in predetermined zones.”

The documents would not be signed this round but would probably be adopted at a conference next week in Tehran, the source said.

The source added that Iran had been proposed as a potential monitor for the de-escalation zone in the central province of Homs but that rebels would refuse any role for Tehran’s forces there.

Turkish and Russian forces are likely to be deployed in the northern de-escalation zone’s “buffer territory, separating the opposition and regime” in parts of Idlib and neighbouring Aleppo provinces, the source said.

Agencies

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