Turkey, Iran help broker rare truce in Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s warring parties declared a 48-hour ceasefire in a frontline area on Wednesday after a month of unprecedented mediation from Turkey and Iran, signaling a new approach by some regional powers backing opposing sides in the conflict.

The ceasefire halted fighting between insurgents on the one hand, and the army and its Lebanese militant Hezbollah allies on the other, in the rebel-held town of Zabadani and in a pair of Sha Muslim villages in Idlib province.

The two areas are strongholds of each side under ferocious attack by the other, meaning both could benefit from a ceasefire by evacuating civilians or combatants.

Three officials close to Damascus described the truce as a result of mediation by Turkey, which backs rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, and Iran, whose support has been vital to his survival.

It was among the strongest signs yet of a new regional approach toward a conflict that has killed a quarter of a million people, made 10 million homeless, left swathes of Syria in the hands of ISIS militants and divided the countries of the Middle East.

After four years in which international diplomacy made no headway toward peace, countries that support Syria and its opponents have been quietly discussing ways to end the war and tackle the common threat from extremists. 

The Iranian foreign minister later flew to Damascus to discuss a new peace plan for Syria.

Sources on both sides of the civil war said earlier on Wednesday the truce was to begin at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT), and negotiations would continue. The rebel group Ahrar al-Sham had led the talks on the insurgents’ side.

“A ceasefire began at 6 a.m. today for 48 hours to halt military operations in Zabadani,” Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV reported. “It also includes the two villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in the Idlib countryside.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said no fighting had been reported in Zabadani, Kefraya or al-Foua after the ceasefire’s agreed start time.

“So far there is calm,” Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, told Reuters.

Zabadani, about 45 km  northwest of the capital Damascus and about 10 km from the border with Lebanon, has been the focus of a weeks-long offensive by the army and Hezbollah aimed at wresting control of the town from rebels.

The two villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, meanwhile, have been targeted in a parallel offensive by an insurgent alliance that includes both the Sunni Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Ahrar al-Sham said last week it was holding talks with an Iranian delegation over Zabadani, located in an area of western Syria where military has sought to shore up control.

One of the officials close to Damascus said: “The ceasefire will begin and some (people) who are in critical condition will be evacuated. Talks will discuss further steps.”

The source added that ongoing talks were focused on an evacuation of rebel fighters from Zabadani, and an evacuation of civilians from the two Shia villages.

ZARIF IN DAMASCUS AS ROCKETS HIT

Turkey a key opponent of President Assad that until now had avoided a direct role in the war, has revamped its strategy in recent weeks to join a campaign against ISIS. It is pressing for a buffer zone in Syria near its frontier that would be free of ISIS and controlled by opponents of Assad.

Rebels fired dozens of rockets into Damascus on Wednesday ahead of the arrival of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The Observatory said the rebel rockets on the capital killed one person and wounded 20 others, while army airstrikes killed around 30 rebels in retaliation.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman said details of a new plan for the Syria crisis would be revealed after Zarif held talks with Damascus and other players.

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