'Cessation of hostilities' in Syria lets Russia keep bombing

If implemented, the deal would allow humanitarian aid to reach besieged towns.

FILE: Syrian government forces in the village of Tal Jabin, north of the embattled city of Aleppo, on 3 February 2016. Picture: AFP.

MUNICH - Major powers agreed on Friday to a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria to begin in a week, doing nothing in the meantime to halt Russian bombing poised to give government forces their biggest victory of the five-year-old war.

If implemented, the deal would allow humanitarian aid to reach besieged towns. It has the potential to be the first diplomatic breakthrough in a conflict that has fractured the Middle East, killed at least 250,000 people, made 11 million homeless and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing into Europe.

But by allowing fighting to rage on for at least another week, it gives the Damascus government and its Russian allies time to press on with an offensive that has transformed the conflict since the start of this month.

Russian warplanes were bombing northern Syria on Friday, showing no sign of slowing the pace of attacks despite the agreement hammered out overnight.

Syrian government forces, with Lebanese and Iranian allies and vigorous Russian air support, are now poised to recapture the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the war, and seal off the border with Turkey.

Those two victories would reverse years of insurgent gains and effectively end rebel hopes of dislodging President Bashar al-Assad through force, the cause they have fought for since 2011 with the encouragement of Arab states, Turkey and the West.

The "cessation of hostilities" agreement reached by the world powers falls short of a formal ceasefire, since it was not signed by the main warring parties - the opposition and government forces.

It was announced after marathon talks in Munich aimed at resurrecting Geneva peace talks that collapsed last week. Implementation will now be the key, said US Secretary of State John Kerry: "What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground, in the field."

RUSSIAN TARGETS

Russia made clear from the outset that the "cessation" would not apply to its air strikes, which have decisively shifted the balance of power toward its ally President Bashar al-Assad since Moscow joined the conflict four months ago.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the news conference that Moscow would not stop bombing, as the deal did not apply to Islamic State and to a rebel group called the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda.

"Our airspace forces will continue working against these organisations," he said.

Moscow has always said that those two jihadist groups are the only targets of its air campaign. Western countries say Russia has in fact been mostly targeting other insurgent groups, including some that they support.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Moscow must halt strikes on insurgents other than Islamic State for any peace deal to work.

"Russia has mainly targeted opposition groups and not ISIL (Islamic State). Air strikes of Russian planes against different opposition groups in Syria have actually undermined the efforts to reach a negotiated, peaceful solution," he said.

The United States has been leading a separate air campaign against Islamic State fighters since 2014, when that group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, swept through much of eastern Syria and northern Iraq, declaring a caliphate.

Washington has largely steered clear of intervening in the main battlefields of Syria's civil war in the west of the country, leaving the field to Russia which began its air campaign on Sept. 30 last year.

Kerry had entered the Munich talks pushing for a rapid halt in the conflict, with Western officials saying Moscow was holding out for a delay.

The tactic of agreeing to a future break in hostilities, while continuing to fight for gains on the ground, is one Moscow's allies used in eastern Ukraine only a year ago.

A truce there eventually took hold, but only after Russian-backed separatist fighters had achieved a major victory, overrunning a besieged town in a final offensive after the deal was reached.