Syria's ceasefire is set to begin Saturday, say the US and Russia

Agence France-Presse
Syria war
Men search for survivors at a site hit by heavy shelling in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus June 16, 2015. 
Bassam Khabieh

The United States and Russia announced Monday that a landmark "cessation of hostilities" in war-torn Syria will take effect on Feb. 27.

In a joint statement, the two countries said Saturday's partial truce would begin at midnight Damascus time (2200 GMT Friday) and would apply to parties to the conflict that have committed to the deal — but not to the Islamic State group or Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate.

"If implemented and adhered to, this cessation will not only lead to a decline in violence, but also continue to expand the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian supplies to besieged areas and support a political transition to a government that is responsive to the desires of the Syrian people," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

US President Barack Obama and Russia's President Vladimir Putin discussed the deal in a phone call, the White House said.

"This is a moment of opportunity and we are hopeful that all the parties will capitalize on it," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the ceasefire a "long-awaited signal of hope" and urged all sides to abide by it.

Once the cessation of hostilities takes hold, the United Nations will work to secure "access to as many places as possible in order to deliver humanitarian aid," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The 17-nation group backing Syria's peace process agreed at a meeting in Munich to implement a ceasefire within a week, but the truce never materialized.

Ban said the truce announced Monday "contributes to creating an environment conducive for the resumption of political negotiations," which had been scheduled to resume this week.

A halt in hostilities in Syria would come after five years of brutal civil war that has killed more than 260,000 people and seen half the population displaced, including over four million overseas.

US-Russian cooperation

Parties wishing to be included in the agreement have until noon Damascus time Friday to inform Russia or the United States of their intention to honor it.

In return, the groups would be assured of protection from Russian and US-led coalition planes. The two powers are pursuing separate air wars in Syria, with Russia pounding rebel targets and the coalition focused on the IS group.

The deal marks a significant change in the level at which US and Russian officials are prepared to cooperate in Syria.

The Pentagon has previously stressed it is not willing to work with Moscow, which it has accused of indiscriminate bombing, and said any communications should be strictly limited to avoiding military mishaps.

But Monday's announcement notes Russia and the United States "are prepared to work together to exchange pertinent information ... and develop procedures necessary for preventing parties participating in the cessation of hostilities from being attacked by Russian Armed Forces, the US-led Counter ISIL Coalition, the armed forces of the Syrian government and other forces supporting them."

Nonetheless, the Pentagon on Monday stressed that any ceasefire would have no bearing on its campaign against the IS group.

"ISIL has not been party to this," Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said, using an alternate acronym for the IS group.

"Our operations will continue as they have. The coalition will continue to strike against ISIL."

In their joint statement, the United States and Russia called on all Syrian parties, regional states and other players to "support the immediate cessation of violence and bloodshed in Syria and to contribute to the swift, effective and successful promotion of the UN-facilitated political transition process."

wat/jm