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Clashes, air raids mar Russia and Turkey’s Syria truce

Clashes, shelling and air raids in western Syria marred a Russian- and Turkish-backed ceasefire that aims to end nearly six years of war and lead to peace talks between rebels and a government emboldened by recent battlefield success.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, announced the ceasefire on Thursday after forging the agreement with Turkey, a longtime backer of the opposition.

The truce went into force at midnight but monitors and rebels reported almost immediate clashes, and violence appeared to escalate later on Friday as warplanes bombed areas in the country’s northwest, they said.

Syrian government warplanes carried out almost 20 raids against rebels in several towns along the provincial boundary between Idlib and Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Clashes between rebel groups and government forces took place overnight in the area, the Observatory and a rebel official said.

MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA

A rebel fighter rests with his weapons behind sandbags at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province on Friday. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

Warplanes and helicopters also struck northwest of Damascus in the rebel-held Wadi Barada valley, where government troops and allied forces clashed with rebels, the British-based Observatory reported.

A military media unit run by Damascus’s ally Hezbollah denied any Syrian government air strikes on the area.

Opposition activist Mazen al-Shami, who is based in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said minor clashes nearby left one rebel wounded. Activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh, in the southern Daraa province, said government forces had opened fire on rebel-held areas.

An official from the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group said government forces had also tried to advance in southern Aleppo province. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military on Friday’s clashes.

Previous ceasefires violated

Several past attempts at halting the fighting have failed. As with previous agreements, the current ceasefire excludes both the al-Qaeda-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front, which fights alongside other rebel factions, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Putin said Thursday that the ceasefire will be guaranteed by both Moscow and Turkey, and the agreement has been welcomed by Iran. Moscow and Tehran provide crucial military support to Assad, while Turkey has long served as a rear base and source of supplies for the rebels.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the ceasefire a “major achievement,” in a tweet Friday.

Russia said the deal was signed by seven of Syria’s major rebel factions, though none of them immediately confirmed it, and one denied signing it.

Assad ‘optimistic’ about Trump

The truce came on the heels of a Russian-Turkish agreement earlier this month to evacuate the last rebels from eastern Aleppo after they were confined to a tiny enclave by a government offensive. The retaking of all of Aleppo marked Assad’s greatest victory since the start of the 2011 uprising against his family’s four-decade rule.

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Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, right, said Thursday in a television interview, ‘we are more optimistic, with caution,’ about the incoming administration of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, who has suggested greater cooperation with Russia against extremist groups. (Associated Press)

“The defeat of the terrorists in Aleppo is an important step toward ending the war,” Assad said in an interview with TG5, an Italian TV station, adding that the capture of the city does not mean that the war has ended because “terrorists” are still in Syria.

The United States was left out of both agreements, reflecting the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington after the failure of previous diplomatic efforts on Syria.

Assad told TG5 “we are more optimistic, with caution,” about the incoming administration of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, who has suggested greater cooperation with Russia against extremist groups.

“We can say part of the optimism could be related to better relations between the United States and Russia,” Assad said, speaking in English.

“Mr. Trump, during his campaign (said) that his priority is fighting terrorism, and we believe that this is the beginning of the solution, if he can implement what he announced,” Assad said in the interview, which was apparently filmed before the ceasefire was announced.

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Syrian army soldiers flash the victory sign in east Aleppo on Dec. 23. The nationwide ceasefire that went into effect at midnight Thursday was holding, despite some clashes reported in the central province of Hama and near the capital, Damascus. (SANA/Associated Press)

ISIS militants killed, reports Turkey

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, meanwhile, quoted the military as saying Russia carried out three airstrikes against ISIS targets near the northern town of al-Bab, where Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces have been battling the group. 

The Turkish military statement quoted by Anadolu did not say when the Russian airstrikes took place, but said they killed 12 ISIS militants.

Separately, 26 ISIS militants, including some senior commanders, were killed in Turkish airstrikes on al-Bab and the Daglabash region, and some 17 ISIS targets were destroyed, Anadolu reported. It said a Turkish soldier was killed in an ISIS attack on troops south of the al-Azrak area.

Turkey sent troops and tanks into northern Syria in August to help opposition forces clear a border area of ISIS militants and curb the advances of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, who are also battling the group.