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Russia admits Syria opposition groups are ‘moderate’

December 30, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Image of the Syrian ceasefire agreement meeting on 20th December 2016 [Kremlin Press Center/Anadolu]

In the wake of the Russia and Turkey-brokered nationwide Syrian ceasefire deal that came into effect today, the Russian Ministry of Defence has published on its website that it considers a number of Syrian opposition groups as “moderate opposition” to President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

The Russian defence ministry website detailed seven opposition groups that it said have signed up to the ceasefire, including major Islamist groups such as Ahrar Al-Sham.

Moscow’s announcement may raise hackles in Damascus and Tehran who have been fighting in desperate battles against the armed factions that Russia has now absolved of being terrorist organisations, and to whom they have lost tens of thousands of men.

Up until yesterday’s declaration, the Kremlin was also keen to have Ahrar Al-Sham and Jaysh Al-Islam recognised as terrorist organisations on an international level. Its sudden about-face is perhaps indicative of its desire to disengage from Syria while it is still riding high on the victory it helped secure for the Assad regime in Aleppo earlier this month.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States could join a fresh peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office on 20 January, showing Russia’s disdain for the current administration under outgoing President Barack Obama.

He also wanted Egypt to join, together with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and the United Nations.

Several opposition officials acknowledged the deal, and a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose alliance of armed opposition groups backed by Turkey, said it would abide by the truce.

Ceasefire holds, but tarnished by clashes

The ceasefire has generally held since it came into effect at midnight local time, despite two incidences of continued fighting between the regime and the Syrian opposition.

Monitors and an opposition official reported clashes almost immediately after the ceasefire came into effect between the opposition and regime forces along the provincial boundary between Idlib and Hama, and isolated incidents of gunfire further south.

Less than 12 hours later, Assad regime forces and their allies clashed with the opposition in Wadi Barad, a strategic valley northwest of Damascus, and helicopter gunships carried out air raids in the area, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported. Government warplanes then carried out airstrikes in northern Hama, the monitor said.

Calm still prevailed in many areas included in the deal, SOHR and opposition officials confirmed, but the fighting highlighted the fragility of any truce agreement in a country where repeated international efforts towards peace have failed.

The ceasefire is the first international deal that has been brokered without the United States, demonstrating Washington’s waning influence in the conflict and over the region as a whole.