Russia muscles into centre of peace drive on ground in Syria

AL-NASRIYA, SYRIA, Max Delany- Two elderly men in chequered headdresses, a Syrian army officer and a Russian colonel sat at a plastic table by a desert road signing sheets of paper.
"In the name of Allah the most merciful" read a Russian translation of the agreement, with the title "Application form to join the cessation of hostilities" printed across the top.

The ceremony -- performed on Saturday in front of the cameras of journalists on a Russian army press tour -- appeared to see the village of Al-Nasriya, some 70 kilometres (45 miles) northeast of Damascus, become the latest location in Syria to have a local truce agreed between government and opposition groups.
In September, Russia launched a massive military campaign to support long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, Moscow has mediated several local truces. Along with Washington, it also brokered a ceasefire for the whole country, which has largely held since coming into force on February 27.
"Russia is acting as a mediator," said Yury Zrayev, leader of the Russian team overseeing the implementation of the six-week ceasefire around Damascus.
"The signing of an agreement for this territory took a long time to work out and required a huge amount of work," Zrayev told journalists.
"It was good that your arrival coincided with the signing. Even though up until yesterday (Friday) we didn't know if anyone would show up."
AFP could not independently confirm that the men presented as town elders who signed the agreement -- which also commits the Syrian army to halt hostilities against the village -- really represented the local population.
- 'Russia's focus is peace' -
But the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said separately that a truce deal was meant to be signed in the area where army positions are some three kilometres from civilian areas.
"I'd like very much to talk about the situation here but they won't let me," one local man said hurriedly in halting Russian, gesturing towards a Kalashnikov-wielding Syrian soldier who then escorted him away from journalists.
A rebel group in the area -- which the Russian military said attacked a Syrian army base nearby a few days earlier -- does not appear to have signed up to the ceasefire.
Some seven weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin hammered out the truce deal with US President Barack Obama and four weeks since he ordered a partial withdrawal from Syria, Moscow has positioned itself as the key peacemaker on the ground in the war-torn country.
So far Russian forces say some 60 different towns and villages and 50 rebel groups have signed truces with the government forces Moscow backs, halting clashes across swathes of the country.
"If before it was simply about fighting then now our main focus has switched to the peace process," Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov told AFP.
Far from the conflict zone, Moscow's diplomats are also lead players in pushing UN-mediated peace talks between the regime and opposition forces but have fiercely batted away all calls for Assad to step aside.
The Kremlin insists the West just needs to focus on ending a tragic five-year war that has killed more than 270,000 people so attention can then switch fully to tackling the threat of extremist organisations such as the Islamic State group.
- Daily violations -
But critics caution that after shoring up Assad's crumbling forces with its firepower and battering the opposition, Russia is now trying to freeze the conflict on the ground in Damascus's favour and avoid getting sucked into a protracted conflict.
On a day-to-day basis, Russian troops in Syria are also meant to be in charge of monitoring the fragile truce -- which has seen daily violations.
Working in coordination with a parallel American centre based 400 kilometres away in the Jordanian capital Amman, Russian forces at Moscow's Hmeimim air base say they receive calls and information tipping them off about new truce breaches.
Every day they release a tally of the violations -- one day four incidents, another five -- almost uniformly blamed on rebel groups and not government forces.
Over the past week their warnings have grown louder about rising violence around Aleppo where they say Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra -- which like IS is not covered by the ceasefire -- has subsumed rebel groups in areas the US insists are off-limits to bombing.
Such warnings are echoed by Moscow's allies in the capital Damascus -- despite allegations from opponents that government forces have also breached the truce.
Addressing journalists in a conference room adorned with Assad's portrait, Syria's reconciliation minister Ali Haidar blamed the Americans for refusing to agree a system to react to groups that fail to maintain the truce.
"We want the cessation of hostilities to be permanent, not just temporary," he said.
"There are a lot of violations and at any moment it could collapse."

Monday, April 11th 2016
Max Delany

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