MUNICH/ AMMAN: Major powers agreed on Friday to a pause in combat in Syria, but Russia pressed on with bombing in support of its ally President Bashar al-Assad, who vowed to fight until he regained full control of the country.
Although billed as a potential breakthrough, the “cessation of hostilities” agreement does not take effect for a week, at a time when Assad’s government is poised to win its biggest victory of the war with the backing of Russian air power.
If implemented, the deal hammered out during five hours of late night talks in Munich would allow humanitarian aid to reach besieged towns. It was described by the countries that took part as a rare diplomatic success in a conflict that has fractured the Middle East, killed at least 250,000 people, made 11 million homeless and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing into Europe.
But several Western countries said there was no hope for progress without a halt to the Russian bombing, which has decisively turned the balance of power in favour of Assad.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that if the peace plan fails, more foreign troops could enter the conflict.
“If the Assad regime does not live up to its responsibilities and if the Iranians and the Russians do not hold Assad to the promises that they have made … then the international community obviously is not going to sit there like fools and watch this. There will be an increase of activity to put greater pressure on them,” Kerry, who was in Munich, told Dubai-based Orient TV.
“There is a possibility there will be additional ground troops.”
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops to Syria, but Saudi Arabia this month offered ground forces to fight Islamic State.
A White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, called the agreement “an important step,” but added, “In the coming days, we will be looking for actions, not words, to demonstrate that all parties are prepared to honour their commitments.”
The complex, multi-sided civil war in Syria, raging since 2011, has drawn in most regional and global powers, producing the world’s worst humanitarian emergency and attracting jihadist recruits from around the world.
Rebels said the town of Tal Rifaat in northern Aleppo province was the target of intensive bombing by Russian planes on Friday morning. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring body, said warplanes believed to be Russian also attacked towns in northern Homs.
The news agency AFP quoted Assad as saying he would continue to fight terrorism while talks took place. He said he would retake the entire country, although this could take a long time.
Another week of fighting would give Syria’s government and its Russian, Lebanese and Iranian allies time to press on with the encirclement of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the war, which they are now on the verge of capturing.
They are also close to sealing the Turkish border, a lifeline of rebel territory for years.
Those two victories would reverse years of insurgent gains, effectively ending the rebels’ hopes of dislodging Assad through force, the cause they have fought for since 2011 with the encouragement of Arab states, Turkey and the West.
The cessation of hostilities agreement falls short of a formal ceasefire, since it was not signed by the main warring parties, the opposition and government forces.