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World Powers Cautiously Welcome Syrian Truce Deal

A damaged clinic is shown after air strikes by Syrian government forces in the rebel-held town of Al-Ghariyah al-Gharbiyah in Deraa Province on February 11.
A damaged clinic is shown after air strikes by Syrian government forces in the rebel-held town of Al-Ghariyah al-Gharbiyah in Deraa Province on February 11.

Western leaders are welcoming a deal for a humanitarian truce in Syria while warning that Russia must stop bombing Western-backed opposition strongholds for the accord to hold.

World powers agreed in Munich overnight on February 11-12 to seek a nationwide "cessation of hostilities" in Syria -- where hundreds of thousands have died and millions have been forced to flee since civil war broke out five years ago -- to begin in a week's time.

"If Russia does not end its strikes on Western-backed Syrian opposition forces, a cease-fire reached by major powers will not hold and humanitarian access will not be effectively secured," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on February 12.

The truce is intended to allow humanitarian aid to reach people in Aleppo and other besieged Syrian communities nationwide.

However, the truce agreement allows attacks to continue against groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN Security Council, including Islamic State (IS, also known as Daesh) and the Al Nusra Front, which is Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria.

Western diplomats have said privately that they worry Russia might seek to continue bombing Western-backed opposition forces despite the peace deal by claiming the attacks are against "terrorist" groups excepted from the accord.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the cessation of hostilities but indicated there was no promise from Russia to stop its bombing campaign. He said he would welcome a more "constructive role" by Russia in fighting Islamic State.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying that "the truce does not apply to terrorists, and that is stated in today's document." He added, "The military operation against them will be continued."

Moscow and Damascus have often broadly labeled Syria's many rebel groups as terrorist organizations.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed to retake the "whole country," saying that just because negotiations were taking place, "it does not mean that we stop fighting terrorism. The two tracks are inevitable in Syria."

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the humanitarian truce "will only succeed if there is a major change of behavior by the Syrian regime and its supporters."

A key rebel coalition, the Higher Negotiating Committee, said it welcomed the deal "in principle." But the Saudi-based grouping said, "We want deeds, not just sayings."

There has been no official comment from Damascus yet on the accord, which was struck in Munich by the United States, Russia, and a dozen other countries composing the International Syria Support Group (ISSG).

Announcing the accord, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the truce is a "pause" and not a formal "cease-fire."

He said that the ISSG members had agreed that formal negotiations to establish a more lasting peace should resume in Geneva as soon as possible.

Representatives of the 17 ISSG countries will meet in Geneva on February 12 to hold talks on how to ensure humanitarian access to needy communities across Syria.

Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council who will chair the UN meeting in Geneva, said the accord "could be the breakthrough we have been waiting for to get full access to desperate civilians inside Syria."

But he said the deal "requires that all those with influence on all sides of the conflict put pressure on the parties."

Meanwhile, prospects for formal Syrian peace talks to resume in Geneva remain uncertain.

UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said plans to reconvene the talks were still "cloudy" but that he hopes they will resume on February 25.

The latest round of Syrian peace talks began in Geneva on January 29 but derailed almost immediately over opposition groups' anger at escalating Syrian government and Russian air attacks on rebel areas around Aleppo.

The war in Syria and the related refugee crisis are high on the agenda as senior officials gather in Munich, Germany, for the annual Munich Security Conference on February 12-14.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa
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