By Liz Sly,
BEIRUT — The fighting stopped Sunday in southern Syria as a U.S. and Russian backed cease-fire went into effect, heralding the start of the first attempt at cooperation between Moscow and Washington since President Trump took office in January.
The guns fell silent well ahead of a noon deadline for the implementation of the truce in the two southern provinces that are covered, local residents said, lending hope that it would work at least for a while to quell the violence.
The agreement to work on a cease-fire in Syria was the first publicized achievement of the historic first meeting Friday between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Details remain vague, however, and it is unclear whether the agreement will lead to other convergences on ways to find an enduring solution to Syria’s six-year-old war.
The two powers refer to this cease-fire as a “de-escalation,” reflecting the modest expectations for success after several previous failed attempts by President Barack Obama to end the fighting in cooperation with Russia.
What makes this effort different, however, is that the peace efforts are now being driven by Russia, which took the lead in the international diplomacy after the defeat of the Syrian rebels in their Aleppo stronghold in December.
Russia has since been seeking to quell the violence by creating de-escalation zones around Syria in cooperation with the other regional powers who wield influence in Syria. An ongoing attempt to create a de-escalation zone in the north in collaboration with Iran and Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, has already somewhat reduced the violence there.
Syria’s two southern neighbors, Jordan and Israel, are on board with this agreement, which applies to the southwestern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra on their borders.
The expectation is that the United States and Jordan will exert influence over their allies among the rebels to observe the truce, while Russia persuades its ally, the Syrian government, to stop fighting.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s other main ally, Iran, is not a party to the agreement. Iran wields extensive influence in the area through its network of militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, and there are concerns that Iran might work to scuttle a deal that might significantly increase U.S. influence over this part of Syria.
Many details remain to be worked out, including an enforcement mechanism. The expectation is that Russian military police will eventually be deployed in the area, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations.
But it is unclear whether Israel will accept Russian enforcers along its border because of concerns that Russia would be unable or unwilling to contain the expansion of Iran and its allies.
So many questions remain over how the cease-fire will work that residents aren’t sure whether they should be hopeful, said Ahmed al-Masalma, a businessman and activist who lives in a rebel-controlled area of Daraa province.
“Some people are pessimistic because we have experience of the regime and Russia and Iran using truces to regroup their forces and advance,” he said. “On the other hand there is some optimism because people need stability to go back to their lives, and we hope this will lead to a political solution.”
Zakaria Zakaria contributed from Istanbul.
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