Beirut: A cease-fire brokered by the United States and Russia came into effect on Friday midnight across Syria on Saturday, marking the biggest international push to reduce violence in the country's devastating conflict. But it excludes the Islamic State (IS) group and the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, as both are listed by the UN as terrorist groups.
The ceasefire aims to bring representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition back to the negotiating table in Geneva for talks on a political transition.
The UN's envoy, Staffan de Mistura, announced that peace talks would resume on March 7 if the cessation of hostilities "largely holds.'' If it does, it would be the first time international negotiations have brought any degree of quiet in Syria's five-year civil war. But success requires adherence by multiple armed factions and the truce is made more fragile because it allows fighting to continue against the Islamic State group and Nusra Front, which could easily re-ignite broader warfare.
The Syrian government and the opposition, including nearly 100 rebel groups, have said they will abide by the ceasefire despite serious skepticism about chances for success.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva after the truce took hold at midnight, de Mistura said initial reports indicated that within minutes both Damascus and the nearby rebel-held town of Daraya suddenly had calmed down. He said there was a report of one incident that his team was investigating but did not give details.
Opposition activists on the ground also reported early adherence to the truce. Mazen al-Shami, an activist near Damascus, said an opposition-held eastern suburb of the capital known as Eastern Ghouta was quiet for the first time in years.' The Ghouta region, which includes the sprawling suburb of Douma, has been the scene of intense fighting during Syria's conflict.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the US didn't expect to be able to judge the cease-fire's success or failure within the first days or even weeks. "We do anticipate we're going to encounter some speed bumps along the way,'' Earnest said. "There will be violations.''
On Friday, hours before the cease-fire came into effect, warplanes unleashed airstrikes against rebel-held positions in the suburbs of the Syrian capital and near the northern city of Aleppo. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the warplanes in Friday's strikes were believed to be Russian.
The rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma was hit 40 times on Friday, the Observatory said, along with other areas east of the capital, killing at least eight people, including three women and four children.
Obama put the onus on Russia and its allies — including the Assad government — to live up to their commitments under the agreement. The elusive cease-fire deal was reached only after a monthslong Russian air campaign that the U.S. says strengthened Assad's hand and allowed his forces to retake territory, altering the balance of power in the Syrian civil war.
"The world will be watching,'' Obama said.
Speaking to reporters in Washington on Friday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called it "put up or shut up'' time for Russia to prove its seriousness about ending the fighting and starting a political transition by adhering to its pledge not to target "groups that we consider the moderate opposition.''
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country will keep hitting "terrorist organizations'' in Syria even after the truce is implemented.
The opposition umbrella, HNC, said in a statement that the Syrian "regime and its allies should not exploit the (truce) and continue with their hostilities against opposition factions under the pretext of fighting terrorists.''
With AP Inputs