By Agence France-Presse
Fighting subsided in Syria on Saturday after a deal signed by government backers Russia and Iran and rebel supporter Turkey to create four “de-escalation zones” began to take effect.
The multi-phase plan, signed on Thursday in the Kazakh capital Astana, is one of the more ambitious efforts to bring an end to Syria’s six-year conflict.
It provides for a ceasefire, rapid deliveries of humanitarian aid and the return of refugees after the creation of “de-escalation zones” across stretches of eight Syrian provinces.
The deal also proposes the deployment of “third-party” monitoring forces and seeks to ground all warplanes.
It began coming into effect at midnight (2100 GMT Friday), according to Russia, but cosponsors have until June 4 to finalise the zones’ borders.
The four main battlegrounds covered are the northwestern province of Idlib, parts of Homs province in the centre, the south, and the opposition enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
There were only sporadic skirmishes and shelling on Saturday in parts of Syria included in the agreement, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
The Observatory, which uses a wide network of sources across Syria, said government forces had bombed rebel positions in central Hama province and near the capital Damascus.
But overall, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, “violence was sharply reduced in the areas covered by the deal.”
– Six-month deal –
Several ceasefire deals have been agreed since Syria’s conflict broke out in March 2011 but they have failed to permanently stem the fighting.
The new deal was penned by Turkey, which backs the opposition, as well as Russia and Iran, who are supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It was reached in Astana during another round of negotiations to shore up a faltering truce deal brokered in December.
The agreement would initially last six months but could be extended by the guarantors.
It does not specify that the safe zones take effect immediately, but gives the three guarantor countries two weeks to form working groups to delineate them and then until June 4 to come up with the definitive boundaries.
Access to the areas will be controlled via security zones complete with checkpoints and observation posts.
The deal also calls for a continued fight against the Islamic State group and former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, which could pose challenges.
In Idlib province in particular, Fateh al-Sham is a major component of the rebel forces that control the area.
The Syrian government and rebel groups are not signatories to the agreement, but state news agency SANA said Damascus supports the plan.
Several members of the rebel delegation to the talks left the room shouting in protest as the signing ceremony got under way in Astana on Thursday, angered by Iran’s role.
Syria’s leading opposition High Negotiations Committee also expressed “concern” about the deal, saying it “lacks safeguards and compliance mechanisms.”
Washington has given the deal a guarded welcome, and United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said he was “encouraged” by it.
The UN is hoping that success on the ground could pave the way to a new round of political talks in Geneva later this month.
More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s war began with demonstrations against Assad six years ago.