No let-up in fighting outside Syria capital despite ceasefire, say activists

Besieged opposition pockets around the Syrian capital of Damascus have seen no reprieve in fighting despite a nationwide ceasefire agreement which went into effect more than 36 hours ago, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said today that at least two civilians and five militants have been killed in battles over the opposition-held Eastern Ghouta and Barada Valley regions.

The Barada Valley Media Centre said Russian and Syrian government aircraft are striking villages in the water-rich region for the 10th consecutive day.

The raids have coincided with a severe water shortage in Damascus since December 22. The valley is the region's primary source of water.

On Friday, the Syrian military denied attacking the valley, saying it would not violate the truce brokered by Russia and Turkey.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council is due to vote on a resolution endorsing the ceasefire in Syria and reinforcing support for a road map to peace, starting with a transitional government.

The Russian-sponsored draft resolution calls for "rapid, safe and unhindered" access to deliver humanitarian aid throughout the country.

It also 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, which brokered the ceasefire, 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 US, 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 ceasefire agreement and the draft resolution to Security Council members on Thursday night.

After closed discussions in the council on Friday morning, Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, circulated a revised draft, urged council members to support it and called for a vote on Saturday, saying the council needed to participate "in this important process".

The council is due to meet at 4pm (Irish time) today.

The ceasefire deal, if it holds, would mark a potential breakthrough in a conflict which began in 2011 with an uprising against decades of rule by Assad's family and has left more than 250,000 dead, more than 13.5 million in need of urgent assistance, and has 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 has been endorsed by the 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.

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

He said Mr de Mistura had been in contact with the Russian government and "indicated his eagerness to help organise the Astana meetings, "so we expect the United Nations to be fully involved in the preparations of the meetings".

Mr Churkin said Russia's understanding was that seven major rebel groups had joined the ceasefire, representing 60,000 fighters, "and they control a large chunk of the territory of Syria".

As with previous failed ceasefire 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, Mr 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".

He said Russia and Turkey had made clear they wanted other countries to participate in the Astana meetings.

He said Iran would definitely participate "actively" in preparing the meetings and in Russia's view Egypt could join the preparatory process now.

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

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

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