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Cease-Fire in Syria Frays but Holds, Giving Hope to Peace Talks

For the Russians, the agreement keeps their client, President Bashar al-Assad, in power, cements their military foothold in Syria and increases the Kremlin’s influence in the Middle East. American intelligence officials told the Obama administration this year that Russia’s goal was to help Syrian forces retake Aleppo so that Russia could pursue a political settlement on stronger terms. This month, the rebel stronghold in eastern Aleppo fell to pro-government troops backed by Russian air power.

For Mr. Assad’s government, the cease-fire is an implicit acknowledgment that it lacks the military might to take back all of Syria. The agreement fails to address what role, if any, Mr. Assad will play in Syria’s future. Russia has not addressed the issue and is now less likely to press Mr. Assad to step down after the military victory in Aleppo, analysts said.

For Turkey, the cease-fire reflects a changed strategy. A longtime backer of the Syrian opposition, the Turks have in recent months backed away from their demand that Mr. Assad step down and instead have shifted their focus to limiting Kurdish autonomy in northeastern Syria. Turkey has also taken in more Syrian refugees than any other country, causing a crisis that could wane if the cease-fire holds.

“This is a window of opportunity that has been opened and should not be squandered,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, referring to the cease-fire, at a news conference in Ankara, Turkey’s capital.

While the Obama administration was not included in the cease-fire discussions, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said that President-elect Donald J. Trump could join the process after taking office next month. Mr. Trump never objected to Moscow’s growing influence in the Middle East throughout his campaign and promoted the possibility of greater cooperation with the Russians in fighting the Islamic State.

“I would like to express my hope that after the administration of Donald Trump assumes its duties, it will also join the efforts in order to channel this work into one direction basing on friendly and collective cooperation,” Mr. Lavrov said during a meeting on Thursday with Mr. Putin, according to Tass, the Russian news agency.

For the Americans, the cease-fire could create an opportunity to cooperate with Russia against the Islamic State.

Top American commanders in the Middle East have long expressed skepticism about any serious commitment by the Russians to fight the Islamic State. But if the cease-fire can be sustained, it would allow both countries “to revive the joint implementation group agreement and for potentially synchronized strikes in Syria,” said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A Trump administration could become involved in future diplomatic talks and also coordinate with the Russians militarily.

On Friday, Syrian residents in some rebel-held areas took advantage of the cease-fire to hold protests calling for Mr. Assad’s removal, according to antigovernment activists and to videos posted online.

Though Russia said many of the rebel groups had signed on to the cease-fire, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, the largest rebel group, denied that his group was a party to the agreement.

The spokesman, Ahmed Qara Ali, said on Twitter on Thursday that the group had “reservations” about the agreement. He and other leaders of Ahrar al-Sham did not respond to requests on Friday to clarify the group’s position.

The cease-fire agreement excluded jihadist groups including the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, which often fights alongside rebel groups, and the Islamic State, which holds territory in eastern Syria.

The Syrian Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, condemned the agreement. In a statement, it said the cease-fire did not address the presence of Iranian-backed militias or Russian troops in Syria, both of which have been allies of Mr. Assad’s military.

“The solution is to topple the criminal regime militarily though jihad and patience,” said a statement by the militant group distributed on Friday through social media. “Any political solution that solidifies the pillars of the regime or reproduces it wastes the sacrifices, betrays the blood and aborts the blessed revolution that is six years old.”

Source: NYT > World

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