Netanyahu welcomes Syria ceasefire, demands end to Iranian aggression
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday welcomed the fragile Syrian ceasefire, which entered its second day, with battlezones across the war-scarred country largely quiet for the first time in five years despite some sporadic breaches.
“We welcome the efforts to achieve a cease-fire in Syria,” Netanyahu said, but warned that any agreement must first and foremost “include the cessation of Iranian aggression against Israel from Syrian territory.”
Netanyahu also took the opportunity to reiterate Israel’s strong stance against Iranian attempts to smuggle weapons to its Lebanese proxy, stressing that Israel “will not agree to transfer weapons to Hezbollah and we will not create a terror front in the Golan Heights.”
“These were the red lines we have set and which remained red lines of the State of Israel,” he added.
The temporary truce currently in effect on the Syrian battlefield, brokered by Washington and Moscow, is seen as a crucial step towards ending a conflict that has claimed 270,000 lives and displaced more than half the population.
It survived a shaky first day, during which state media said shells were fired on the capital while rebels also accused government forces of “violations”.
“I think this is the first time we’ve woken up without the sound of shelling,” said Ammar al-Rai, a 22-year-old medical student in Damascus.
An international task force set up to monitor the fighting co-chaired by the United States and Russia said Saturday had been largely successful.
“The United Nations, the United States and Russia have made a positive assessment of the first hours of the cessation of hostilities,” a Western diplomat said after a meeting of the International Syria Support Group in Geneva.
The UN reported “some incidents” in apparent violation of the truce, but “they have been defused”, he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s office said he and US Secretary of State John Kerry had “hailed” the ceasefire in a phone call, and discussed ways of improving cooperation between their militaries.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has said peace talks will resume on March 7 if the ceasefire prevails and more aid is delivered — a key sticking point in negotiations.
A spokesman for the UN’s humanitarian affairs office said the next convoys are expected to leave on Sunday, after aid reached tens of thousands of people in besieged cities over the past week.
“If it (the truce) holds, it will create the conditions for full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access throughout Syria,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
The ceasefire faces formidable challenges, however, particularly as it excludes the ISIS jihadist group and al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
Russia, which has waged nearly five months of intense air strikes in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said it had halted bombing in all areas covered by the truce.
Moscow has vowed to keep striking ISIS, Al-Nusra and other terrorist groups, but said it grounded its warplanes in the Syria campaign on the first day of the truce to avoid potential mistakes.
Among the ceasefire breaches, state media said terrorist groups fired shells on Damascus, but caused no casualties. Rebels also accused government forces of intermittent “truce violations”.
In second city Aleppo, two people were killed and four wounded when shells hit the majority-Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsud, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
State media said one person was killed by sniper fire in the same district.
The city is now almost completely encircled by pro-regime troops after a massive Russian-backed offensive that has caused tens of thousands to flee.
On Saturday, however, locals came out to enjoy the calm and children played in parks.
“I hope the truce continues even for a limited time so we can get back part of our old lives from before the war,” said Abu Nadim, a father of four.