Russia, Turkey discuss Syria ceasefire

ISTANBUL, TURKEY, Stuart Williams- Russia and Turkey were discussing a nationwide truce plan for Syria, and while Turkish state media on Wednesday said a deal had been reached, none of the key players in the conflict offered a confirmation.
The state-run Anadolu news agency said the plan aims to expand a ceasefire in the city of Aleppo -- brokered by Turkey and Russia earlier this month to allow the evacuation of civilians -- to the whole country.

If successful, the plan would form the basis of upcoming political negotiations between the Damascus regime and the opposition, overseen by Russia and Turkey in the Kazakh capital Astana, it added.
But in a speech in Ankara after the report was published, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made no reference to the plan, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he could not answer on an issue "about which I don't have enough information".
A Syrian rebel official confirmed to AFP that talks for a possible ceasefire were under way, but obstacles remained for any deal.
Labib Nahhas, foreign relations head for the powerful Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, said the faction was "aware of ongoing discussions between Russia and Turkey about a nationwide ceasefire".
He said rebel factions had not been presented with any official proposal.
"Russia wants to exclude Eastern Ghouta from the ceasefire, which is not acceptable," he said, referring to a rebel-held area outside Damascus.
Syria's army has been advancing in Eastern Ghouta in recent months, and securing the area around the capital would be another major government gain after recapturing Aleppo.
- Heading to Astana? -
An official from the High Negotiations Committee -- which oversees political talks of the Syrian rebels -- said there was no information about a ceasefire so far. There was also no reaction from the Syrian regime.
Anadolu said both sides were working for the ceasefire to come into force at midnight but gave no further details.
The report came after Ankara has hosted a succession of closed-door talks between Russia and Syrian opposition rebels over the last weeks.
Qatar-based channel Al-Jazeera said a new meeting is planned on Thursday in Ankara, this time between military representatives of Syrian rebels and Russia.
Ankara and Moscow have been on opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, with Turkey seeking the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran.
But the two countries have recently started to cooperate more closely on Syria, especially after a deal in the summer to normalise ties battered by Turkey's shooting down of a Russian warplane last year.
Turkey remained conspicuously quiet as Assad's forces, backed by Russia, took control last week of Aleppo in the biggest defeat so far for the rebels in the civil war.
No date has yet been set for the Astana talks and Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the meeting was still at the planning stage.
But the direct involvement of Turkey and Russia comes as Erdogan is increasingly expressing impatience at the role of the United States in Syria.
Previous ceasefire plans had been brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. They met with only temporary success and failed to lead to a solution for the conflict.
It remains unclear how the latest ceasefire plan will apply to Fateh al-Sham, formerly the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
- Bitter attack on US policy -
Erdogan had on Tuesday launched one of his most bitter attacks on US and Western policy in Syria.
He accused the West of not just supporting Kurdish militia that Ankara regards as a "terror group" but even Islamic State (IS) jihadists.
In an angry statement, the US embassy in Ankara said: "Assertions the United States government is supporting Daesh (IS) are not true."
In continued bloodshed, air strikes carried out by unidentified aircraft killed at least 22 civilians, including 10 children, in a village held by IS in Deir Ezzor province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Syria's conflict began in 2011 as an uprising against Assad but quickly morphed into a civil war after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown against dissent.
The war has killed more than 310,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes.

Thursday, December 29th 2016
Stuart Williams

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