PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry



Analysis: It’s Not a “Ceasefire” — It’s Cover for the US and Russia
Confusion over “Saudi-Turkish Joint Drills”
Kurds Take Airbase from Rebels as Turkey Issues A Warning

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UPDATE 1540 GMT: AFP has released an extract from an interview with President Assad on Thursday, in which he said his armed forces will try to retake all of Syria “without any hesitation”.

Rather than envisaging a cessation of hostilities, Assad said the involvement of regional players “means that the solution will take a long time and will incur a heavy price”.

UPDATE 1440 GMT: Even as the International Syria Support Groups is declaring its pursuit of the end of hostilities, the Syrian military is dropping leaflets on Aleppo city, warning residents that it is coming to “crush the terrorists”:

Dear residents and tribes and families and sons of Aleppo, the operations of the Syrian Arab Army have begun and and they not will not stop until the final terrorist has been exterminated.

UPDATE 0940 GMT: Doubts are starting to gather about the International Syria Support Group’s plan.

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt poses an important question:

An activist with the leading rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham said that the proposal allows Russia to continue bombing opposition-held areas such as Idlib Province, using the pretext of attacks on the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra:

Not only in Aleppo but in most liberated areas there is Nusra, and consequently this agreement cannot be implemented….

I don’t expect Ahrar to accept it, because the agreement is completely illogical. It is a waste of time because as long as Nusra is excluded from the agreement it means fighting will not stop in any area.

Free Syrian Army Issam al-Reis was cautious in messages on Twitter:

ORIGINAL ENTRY: The International Syria Support Group — Russia, the US, 15 other countries, the Arab League, and the European Union — have agreed to pursue implementation of a “cessation of hostilities”, beginning in a week across Syria.

After a lengthy meeting in Munich, the group announced the plan late Thursday night. It declares that, within six months of the beginning of opposition-regime talks, an agreement should be reached on an 18-month period for “a political transition plan that establishes credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new Constitution [and for] free and fair elections”.

Declaring that the plan will “change the daily lives of the Syrian people”, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Today in Munich we believe we have made progress on both the humanitarian front and the cessation of hostilities front.”

He said the end of fighting applied to all parties except for operations against the Islamic State and the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Kerry told a news conference that a task force will develop the “modalities” for implementation. Under the ISSG proposal, members of the force will include political and military officials from both the countries supporting the Syrian opposition and those backing the Assad regime.

Significantly, he noted that both the regime and the opposition will have to agree to the details of the “modalities”.

A Far from Complete Plan?

If implemented, the plan would end Russian and Syrian Air Force bombing and regime-Iranian-Hezbollah offensives against opposition-held areas.

The opposition-rebel bloc has refused to enter “proximity talks” with the Assad regime without the ceasefires and access to aid for besieged areas. Continued Russian airstrikes undermined short-lived discussions in Geneva last week, leading to a suspension until February 25.

However, the Munich proposals have significant gaps which could limit its effectiveness and even permit Moscow and the Assad regime to continue their attacks, which have gained territory north of Aleppo — threatening to cut off rebels and an estimated 300,000 people in the city — in recent weeks.

The term “ceasefire” was not included in the plan, and Russia has used the pretext of strikes on both the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra to justify intensive bombing of rebels and opposition territory since its campaign began on September 30.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the “cessation” could only succeed if Russia stopped its airstrikes, but “if implemented fully and properly…this will be an important step towards relieving the killing and suffering in Syria”.

Kerry echoed — but without naming Moscow, as he sat beside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “What we have are words on paper. What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground, in the field….Without a political transition, it is not possible to achieve peace.”

Lavrov emphasized that Russia’s bombing would continue, with the provision that assaults on the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra can be pursued, “The truce does not go for terrorists and it is stated in today’s document. The military operation against them will be continued.”

The Foreign Minister said a working group on humanitarian aid will begin work on Friday, but he gave no indication if the Syrian military would relax its blockades — some of which have been maintained for years — which have threatened hundreds of thousands of people across the country.

Lavrov added that a “certain agreement” has been reached between Russia and the US to airdrop aid into some areas. He indicated that this would includes assistance to regime-held territory, which has been surrounded by the Islamic State, in Deir ez-Zor Province in eastern Syria.

Kerry said the deliveries would begin within a week in areas as Deir ez-Zor; to the regime enclaves of al-Fu’ah and Kafraya in Idlib Province, which were reached by the Syrian military earlier this month; opposition-held Madaya in Damascus Province, where scores have died from starvation amid a seven-month regime siege; and opposition-held suburbs of Damascus which have been blockaded for years.

Looking ahead, Lavrov challenged the legitimacy of the opposition-rebel bloc’s High Negotiations Committee in any “proximity talks” with the regime:

Some prefer not to remember that the transition [of power] should be based on the consent of the government and the broad range of opposition forces. Some believe that it will be enough to invite a delegation, which represents only a part of foreign opponents of the regime and to rank the rest as “consultants”. This will not work.

Russia has put a series of objections to the HNC, established in December in a conference in Saudi Arabia, including the claim that it includes “terrorists” such as the rebel faction Jaish al-Islam.

Moscow put forth an alternative list of 15 people including Kurdish representatives and politicians close to Russia. However, both the opposition-rebel bloc and countries such as Turkey objected to any participation by the leadership of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose armed wing is seizing opposition territory in northwest Syria as well as pushing back the Islamic State in the northeast.

Video: The Latest Hospital Hit By A Russian Airstrike, 2 Killed

Aftermath of a Russian airstrike on Saida hospital in Daraa Province on Tuesday:

The hospital’s director, Mohammad al-Hiraki, said two people were killed and dozens injured in Saida, 7 km (4 miles) east of Daraa city.

“The hospital served the entire eastern [countryside] with surgical operations, and we conducted complex surgeries despite the lack of support,” Hiraki said.

Four other hospitals near Daraa closed after staff met on Wednesday, local news site Yaqeen reported. The closures bring the total in the province to eight.

Russian attacks have struck scores of hospitals and medical clinics across Syria. Last week, an airstrike killed three people, including a nurse, and wounded six in Tafas hospital in Daraa Province. Main hospitals in Aleppo Province, including two in Aleppo city, have been damaged and closed by the bombing.

Muskilda Zancada, the head of mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres, expressed concern about the situation near Azaz in Aleppo Province, where Russian attacks are enabling a regime-Iranian-Hezbollah offensive:

We are extremely concerned about the situation in the south of the district, where medical staff, fearing for their lives, have been forced to flee and hospitals have either been completely closed, or can only offer limited emergency services.