The Syrian government and rebels have agreed a ceasefire brokered and guaranteed by Russia and Turkey, marking a potential breakthrough in efforts to end a near six-year conflict that has claimed more than 400,000 lives.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said a truce would come into effect at midnight on Thursday, adding that Syria’s warring parties had signed documents detailing how it would be monitored and declaring their willingness to start peace talks.
The challenge will be to implement the deal and ensure it does not break down, as previous ceasefires have done in an environment of deep distrust between the myriad groups fighting in the conflict.
“The arrangements are certainly fragile, need special attention and support with a view to their preservation and development,” Mr Putin said. “Nevertheless, this is a significant result of our joint work.”
The agreement highlights Moscow’s growing influence in the Middle East and the waning role of the US. Washington reluctantly supported the rebels but has become increasingly sidelined in the crisis as Russia’s military intervention provided crucial support to President Bashar al-Assad.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, welcomed the agreement, saying in a statement that he hoped it would “save civilian lives, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance across Syria, and pave the way for productive talks.”
The deal comes at a time when the rebels are at their weakest since an uprising against Mr Assad erupted in 2011 after the Syrian regime, backed by Russia war planes, recaptured Aleppo this month. The northern city, which endured the most intense bombardment of the conflict, was the opposition’s last major urban stronghold.
The Syrian army said it would halt fighting at midnight. Moscow said seven rebel groups, whose forces include tens of thousands of fighters, had signed the deal. Peace talks between the Syrian regime and rebels are to take place in Kazakhstan, the central Asian state, although no date was set.
Mustapha Sayjari head of the political office of the al-Mu’tasim Brigade, said his rebel group hoped the deal would “lessen the suffering of the Syrian people and pave the way towards a political solution”.
Amar Sakar, a spokesperson for the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, a grouping of rebels which has agreed to the truce, said: “Since the beginning of the revolution our goals were and remain the attainment of freedom and dignity.”
Turkey, which has been a key backer of the Syrian opposition, has been pressing the rebels to reach a deal and is likely to have a pivotal role in ensuring the latest agreement survives. Turkey’s involvement in Syria dramatically increased after it sent troops across the countries’ shared border in August to fight Isis and contain Syrian Kurds it says are an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ party, which it designates as a terrorist group.
Ankara has previously called for the removal of Mr Assad, but analysts say its priorities appear to be changing.
“Turkey’s endorsement . . . signals a major shift in its own priorities that no longer seem to include regime change in Syria,” said Lina Khatib, an analyst at Chatham House. “Even if the ceasefire is not fully implemented, the agreement is the first step in a new phase in the history of the conflict that showcases Russia’s increased confidence and the acquiescence of its opponents.”
A Free Syrian Army spokesman said the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, was not included in the deal.
Moscow said the ceasefire also excluded Isis, which controls swaths of eastern Syria, and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which has ties to al-Qaeda. But some rebel officials said Fatah al-Sham, which was formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra and is one of the best armed and most effective forces fighting the regime, was included.
The group grew in popularity after leading efforts to break a weeks-long regime siege on rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo and its position on the ground will be one of many complicating factors.
“The core point is that organisations who fail to stop fighting will be transferred to the category of terrorist groups, and they will be treated just like Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra,” said Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister.
Moscow said the deal was hammered out as Russia’s attempts to broker a similar agreement with the US’s involvement were falling apart.
The core point is that organisations who fail to stop fighting will be transferred to the category of terrorist groups
Reiterating longstanding Russian complaints that Washington failed to meet its pledge to help differentiate moderate Syrian rebels from extremist groups, Mr Shoigu said: “We spent the best part of two months on exactly locating on maps what we had asked our colleagues from the US to do back then.”
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, who spent hours in talks with John Kerry, his US counterpart, this year but failed to reach an agreement, singled out president-elect Donald Trump in an appeal for future co-operation with Washington on Syria.
“[We] hope that when the administration of Donald Trump takes office they can also join these efforts so that we can work together collectively and in concert in one direction,” Mr Lavrov said.
Mr Trump has previously suggested his priority in Syria would be fighting Isis rather than pressing for the removal of Mr Assad.
Turkish officials said that as part of the implementation of the peace deal the Lebanese militant group, Hizbollah, which has sent hundreds of fighters to support Mr Assad’s forces, must withdraw from Syria.
As well as enjoying Russian air support, the Syrian regime has been backed by foreign Shia militia and Iran.