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UN Security Council to vote Saturday on Syria cease-fire

Associated Press logo Associated Press 31/12/2016 By EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council scheduled a vote for Saturday on a resolution that would endorse the cease-fire agreement in Syria brokered by Russia and Turkey, and reiterate support for a roadmap to peace that starts with a transitional government.

The Russian-sponsored resolution also calls for "rapid, safe and unhindered" access to deliver humanitarian aid throughout the country. And it looks forward to a meeting in late January between the Syrian government and opposition in Kazakhstan's capital Astana "as an important part of the Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations."

Russia and Turkey are on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict: Moscow along with Iran provides crucial military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has long served as a rear base and source of supplies for the rebels.

Divisions in the Security Council between Russia and the veto-wielding Western powers — the U.S. Britain and France who support the moderate opposition and demand that Assad steps down — have blocked action to end the war, now in its sixth year.

Russia and Turkey sent the cease-fire agreement and the draft resolution to Security Council members Thursday night. After closed discussions in the council Friday morning, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin circulated a revised draft, urged council members to support it, and called for a vote on Saturday.

The Security Council needs to participate "in this important process," Churkin said.

The council is scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. EST. Russia's U.N. Mission said members would hold closed consultations and then vote.

The cease-fire agreement, if it holds, would mark a potential breakthrough in a conflict that began in 2011 with an uprising against decades of rule by President Bashar Assad's family and has left over 250,000 dead and more than 13.5 million people in need of urgent assistance, and triggered a refugee crisis across Europe.

The draft resolution reiterates "that the only sustainable solution to the current crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process based on the Geneva communique of June 30, 2012," which was endorsed by the Security Council.

The communique, adopted by key nations, calls for the formation of a transitional government with full executive powers "on the basis of mutual consent" and steps leading to elections.

Churkin told reporters "there is no competition" between the talks in Astana and negotiations that the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, hopes to arrange between the government and opposition in Geneva on Feb. 8.

"As you know Staffan de Mistura had trouble reconvening the talks, so Russia and Turkey obviously decided to give the United Nations a hand in pushing things forward, and this is what we see happening," Churkin told reporters.

He said de Mistura has been in contact with the Russian government and "indicated his eagerness to help organize the Astana meetings. ... So we expect the United Nations to be fully involved in the preparations of the meetings."

Churkin said Russia's understanding is that seven major rebel groups have joined in the cease-fire, representing 60,000 fighters, "and they control a large chunk of the territory of Syria."

As with previous failed cease-fire attempts, the current agreement excludes both the al-Qaida-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front, which fights alongside other rebel factions, and the Islamic State group.

If the Astana meetings are successful, Churkin said, "they could move on to Geneva as far as I am concerned, so we don't see any competition there or overlapping of the two processes."

Churkin said Russia and Turkey have made clear they want other countries to participate in the Astana meetings.

He said Iran will definitely participate "actively" in preparing the Astana meeting and in Russia's view Egypt can also join the preparatory process right now.

Churkin said there are other very important players who are welcome including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar — and "we do expect the Trump administration after it comes into the White House on Jan. 20 will be an important participant."

The United States was left out of the cease-fire agreement, reflecting the deterioration of relations between Moscow and the Obama administration after the failure of U.S.-Russian diplomatic efforts to halt the fighting in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

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