Feb 26, 2016 7:12 PM

UN: Syria talks to resume March 7 if truce 'largely holds'

The Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) The United Nations special envoy for Syria said Friday he plans to resume peace talks on March 7 if a cessation of hostilities negotiated by the United States and Russia that began at midnight local time "largely holds."

Staffan de Mistura said initial reports through his office suggested that three minutes into the cessation of hostilities, "suddenly both Daraya and Damascus had calmed down." However he noted a "tentative report" about one incident, which he did not specify, that his team was investigating.

Earlier, de Mistura briefed the U.N. Security Council via videoconference from Geneva following a meeting of envoys from the 17-member International Syria Support Group, charged with monitoring implementation of the agreement.

"This will remain a complicated, painstaking process," he told the council. But he added that "nothing is impossible, especially at this moment."

De Mistura, however, warned he had "no doubt there will be no shortage of attempts to undermine this process."

Shortly after the briefing, the 15-member council voted unanimously to approve a resolution endorsing the cease-fire agreement less than an hour before it was set to start.

If the cessation of hostilities holds, it would mark the first time international negotiations have managed a pause in Syria's civil war, which shortly will enter its sixth year.

Even as council members spoke in support of the agreement, strains showed. Russia warned against "the harmful practice of providing external support to armed groups."

And British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said "Russia must turn words into actions" and use its influence on its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad: "If they don't, we will falter again."

According to a draft obtained by The Associated Press, the resolution urges the U.N. secretary-general to resume the peace talks "as soon as possible."

It also expresses support for an international working group whose task is to "accelerate the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid," with the goal of sustained and unimpeded aid access to all parts of Syria.

That includes areas where hundreds of thousands of people find themselves besieged, most of them by Syrian government forces or the Islamic State group.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told the council that his country is ready to participate in any "sincere effort" at peace. But he added, "The ball again is in the court of other parties which are yet to prove their good intentions" by acting without preconditions and without interfering in his country's affairs.

For the cease-fire to succeed, multiple armed factions will have to adhere to its terms.

The Syrian government and a leading opposition bloc have agreed to the cessation of hostilities, but the accord excludes U.N.-designated terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Nusra Front, which hold swaths of Syrian territory.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the council that the cessation of hostilities will not in itself ensure that a political solution in Syria is reached. But she said the "vast majority" of the opposition is ready to cooperate with the cease-fire.

"Let us be real. It's going to be extremely challenging, especially at the outset, to make this work," Power said.

Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov, who acknowledged that the process will be "difficult and complex," but added: "We now have a real chance to end the violence."

De Mistura said that ultimately, the entire monitoring structure will be built around Russia and the United States, with the United Nations acting as a go-between.

He said that operation centers in Moscow, Washington, the Syrian coastal region of Latakia, the Jordanian capital, Amman, and Geneva will collect "infringements" of the cease-fire and share the information with the United States and Russia, which are responsible for addressing the incidents.

In such a complex conflict, the various monitors will be tasked with sifting through allegations of non-compliance and weed out which ones deserve a deeper look, de Mistura said.

"The secret will be how all this is verified and we do have means both on the ground through our own contacts and certainly through these different operation centers," he said. "I think the system needs to be given a chance to be tested."

He stopped short of specifying how violations would be handled.


Keaten reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper in Washington and Cara Anna in New York contributed.


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