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US welcomes Syria cease-fire, urges focus on UN peace process

War in Syria. (Pexels/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States said it welcomes news of a cease-fire in northwest Syria and added it was “truly important” that attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure be halted.

A State Department statement on August 3 said U.S. officials “commend efforts by Turkey and Russia working together to restore the cease-fire they agreed in [the Russian resort of] Sochi in September 2018.”

At the same time, the State Department said Washington believes that the “only viable path to a political solution is the UN-led political process in Geneva.”

“We will continue to support the work of UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen and the United Nations to advance a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process that would create a permanent, peaceful, and political end to the conflict.”

The Syrian government on August 1 said it had agreed to a truce in war-ravaged Idlib Province, conditional on the implementation of a Turkish-Russian deal to enforce a buffer zone encircling the area.

The region was supposed to have been spared from a threatened Syrian government offensive against what the regime calls “terrorists” by a deal struck by Ankara and Moscow.

In Idlib, an estimated 10,000 fighters with the Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham group are believed to be the dominant force among rebels in the province. Pro-Turkey rebels fighting the Syrian government also control large areas of the province.

The Sochi agreement failed to gain ground as Syrian forces — with Russian support — in late April launched an intense bombardment of the region, leading to what many have called a humanitarian disaster among the civilian population.

Rights groups say some 400,000 people have been forced to flee the region, while some 790 civilians have been killed in the past three months along with 1,000 jihadists and other rebels and around 900 pro-government fighters.

Turkey has also expressed fears that a large-scale assault by Syrian government forces on Idlib, which lies on its southern border, could trigger a massive flow of refugees onto its soil. The country is already home to more than 3 million Syrians who have fled the war.

Announcement of the cease-fire came as a fresh round of the so-called Astana negotiations track were taking place in the Kazakh capital — recently renamed Nur-Sultan — in parallel to UN-sponsored negotiations aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, now in its ninth year.

The situation in Idlib and the country’s northeast, as well as the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, were at the center of the 13th round of the Astana talks.

Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara back different sides in the conflict, but have said they want a political solution that brings an end to the war, which has killed more than 370,000 people, displaced millions, and devastated historical sites across the country.

Russia and Iran have given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crucial military backing throughout the war that began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011. Turkey and the United States support different rebel groups.

Russian and Iranian support helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor, but Syrian rebel groups and militant outfits still control parts of northwestern and southwestern Syria, while a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led alliance holds most of the northeast.

Many residents of the region expressed doubts about the cease-fire announcement by Assad’s government and its Russian allies.

“It’s nonsense,” 23-year-old Abdel Rahman al-Khishin, who fled the town of Fuaa because of the bombing, told AFP.

“Russia always agrees to cease-fires but ends up bombing,” said the man, who is living near the town of Binnish.