Turkey Says Ceasefire Violations Threaten Peace Talks

Turkey drove out ISIS militants from its border, sealing the 57-mile territory with Syria. Photo credit: AFP
Turkey drove out ISIS militants from its border, sealing the 57-mile territory with Syria. Photo credit: AFP

Turkey’s top diplomat bluntly warned that the continued violations of Syrian ceasefire jointly brokered by Turkey and Russia last week would impede peace efforts and derail expected talks in Astana later this month.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said repeated violations by the Syrian regime forces and its Lebanese Shiite allies jeopardize the peace efforts. He urged Iran to use its influence over the regime and Shiite forces to halt their military operations to salvage the latest attempt initiated by Turkey and Russia.

Five days after a nationwide truce went into effect, it shows signs of crumbling as government forces and its ally Hezbollah advance in Damascus suburbs to consolidate regime’s control. Cavusoglu placed the blame on the government troops and Shiite militias for the violations, a claim disputed and challenged by a senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official who accused rebel forces of breaching the ceasefire.

“If we cannot stop the increasing violations, the Astana process could fail,” the foreign minister told the state-run Anadolu news agency. The Syrian government and main rebel factions are braced for negotiations in Kazakhstan capital Astana on Jan. 23 to reach a political settlement to end the six-years-old war that killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions more.

Next week, a group of Russian officials is scheduled to arrive in Turkey, Cavusoglu said, to lay the framework for the Astana negotiations.

In a statement released on Monday, 10 rebel groups said they placed all discussions regarding the Astana process on hold. “As these violations are continuing, the rebel factions announce… the freezing of all discussion linked to the Astana negotiations,” the factions said. Rebels accuse the government of systematic violations of the ceasefire, even of carrying out airstrikes in Idlib.

While in northern parts of Syria, where Turkey wields considerable control over some rebel groups, the truce seems to be holding, in southern Syria it teeters on the brink of collapse in the face of renewed government operations in Barada Valley and Eastern Ghouta. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict from the beginning, said in a statement that pro-government forces have escalated attacks there.

In Wadi Barada, a river valley, an estimated 100,000 people have lived under siege since July, the Washington Post reported.

The Observatory said the government troops used barrel bombs near a critical water source, the Ain al-Fijah spring, which provides 70 percent of Damascus residents with fresh water. Last summer, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime cut access routes to the spring.

Noting the regime advance on Wadi Barada and Eastern Ghouta, rebel factions warned that “the accord will be considered null and void if things don’t return to how they were before.”

The U.S. State Department blamed the Syrian government forces for violations.

The government advance and rebel statement inflict significant setbacks to painstaking efforts of Turkey and Russia. The shaky ceasefire is said to endowed with internal contradictions and pitfalls from the start. The exclusion of Islamic State and al-Nusra Front gives the government an excuse to hit also other hardline groups that agreed to the ceasefire accord.

For Turkey and Russia, the recent attacks that killed many people and wounded dozens of civilians also revealed limits of their influence and capacity to steer the course of events on the ground. Though it presents itself as a key mediator that wields influence over the Syrian regime, recent military endeavors of Damascus show Moscow is indeed unable to persuade its client to stay in line with the ceasefire. Nor has Turkey absolute control over its rebel allies.

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