US, Russia race to save Syria truce

Washington warns that rebels violating truce may invite Al Assad's attacks

US, Russia race to save Syria truce

An offensive outside Damascus has severely strained fragile ceasefire between the regime and anti-Daesh rebel forces Washington and Moscow scrambled to salvage Syria’s shaky ceasefire yesterday as the country reeled from Daesh bombings that killed more than 160 people in President Bashar Al Assad’s coastal heartland.

A regime offensive outside the capital has severely strained an already fragile nationwide ceasefire between the regime and non-Daesh rebels intended to pave the way for peace talks to end the five-year conflict.

The US envoy for Syria late on Monday urged rebels to respect the February 27 ceasefire after they gave its brokers — Washington and Moscow — until yesterday afternoon to stop the advance on rebel bastions outside Damascus.
“We recognise that the CoH (Cessation of Hostilities) is under severe stress, but believe that to abandon it now would be strategic error,” Michael Ratney said in a statement on Twitter.

“If the armed factions abandoned the CoH, Al Assad and his supporters would claim this gives them licence to attack all the opposition forces without international objection.” Twenty-nine rebel groups had called on Washington and Moscow to force Al Assad’s regime “to completely and immediately halt their brutal offensive against Daraya and Eastern Ghouta” near Damascus. Syria’s army, backed by Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah, on Thursday recaptured the town of Deir Al Asaafir and nine nearby villages in the south of Eastern Ghouta.

The town of Daraya was one of the first to erupt in demonstrations against the government in 2011. It has been under a strict regime siege since late 2012. Staunch regime ally Russia late on Monday called for a temporary local truce in Eastern Ghouta and Daraya — within the wider nationwide ceasefire — from yesterday. “The Russian reconciliation centre is calling for a 72-hour regime of silence in Eastern Ghouta and Daraya,” Russia’s defence ministry quoted the head of the Russian coordination centre in Syria, Sergei Kuralenko, as saying.

The February ceasefire does not include Daesh and its rival, Syria’s Al Qaida affiliate, Al Nusra Front. Kuralenko reiterated Moscow’s call for moderate rebels to withdraw from areas controlled by the Al Nusra Front and break ranks with the terrorists, saying Russia would keep targeting the militants.

Meanwhile, a Kurdish-led force backed by US air strikes launched an offensive yesterday seeking to capture territory around the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, in the first ground attack to directly challenge Daesh’s control of its self-proclaimed capital. A few thousand Kurdish and Arab fighters — grouped under the umbrella of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — began moving south through the desert from the existing front line about 30 miles north of Raqqa, according to a statement from the SDF and the US military.

he operation aims to secure control of a stretch of territory north of Raqqa, said US military spokesman Col. Steve Warren, speaking by telephone from Baghdad.