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      United Nations Says Syria Is Willing to Stop Aleppo Bombardment

      United Nations Says Syria Is Willing to Stop Aleppo Bombardment United Nations Says Syria Is Willing to Stop Aleppo Bombardment United Nations Says Syria Is Willing to Stop Aleppo Bombardment
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      Middle East

      United Nations Says Syria Is Willing to Stop Aleppo Bombardment

      By John Beck

      Syria is willing to stop its aerial and artillery bombardment of rebel-held parts of Aleppo to facilitate a humanitarian ceasefire, according to a United Nations (UN) official.

      Government troops are continuing to press an offensive on the northern city, however, and have cut off a key opposition supply line.

      The UN's special envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura said on Tuesday that Damascus was prepared to halt its frequent and indiscriminate attacks on the Aleppo for six weeks. The city is divided between government forces and opposition fighters which include both western-backed and Islamist units. Rebel groups, which do not have access to air power, would be asked to cease mortar and rocket fire under the proposal.

      "The government of Syria has indicated to me its willingness to halt all aerial bombing and artillery shelling for a period of six weeks all over the city of Aleppo from a date we'll be announcing from Damascus," De Mistura told reporters after addressing the UN Security Council. "The purpose is to spare as many civilians as possible while we try to find a political solution," he added.

      De Mistura was appointed as the UN's Syria mediator in July and has proposed "freezes" in hostilities before, but met with little success. A similar plan to allow humanitarian aid into Aleppo last year failed, and the special envoy admitted that the latest scheme would not be easy either, Reuters said. "I have no illusions because, based on past experiences, this will be a difficult mission to be achieved. Facts on the ground will prove if the freeze holds and can be replicated elsewhere."

      His comments came as a government offensive further encircled the city, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of local activists. Syrian troops have now effectively cut the highway running from Aleppo to the Turkish border through the city of Tal Rifaat, a key supply route. At least 70 Syrian troops and 66 rebels were killed in the fighting, SOHR said.

      Meanwhile, American and Turkish officials announced they had reached a tentative agreement to provide training and equipment to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).

      "I can confirm that we have reached an agreement in principle with Turkey on training and equipping the Syrian opposition groups," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters during a Tuesday press briefing, adding that she expected it to be finalized soon.  

      Turkey's foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic told reporters that the agreement is expected to be in motion by March and that further details would be announced in coming days. 

      The CIA began a secret program to train and arm a small number of trusted Syrian rebels in 2013, but it does not appear to have had a measurable impact and the latest scheme will be far larger. American officials had already said that over 400 military personnel would be deployed to train moderate Syrian rebel groups to battle the extremist group known as Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq. 5,000 rebel fighters would be trained every year over a three year period, according to the plans, and Turkey, alongside Saudi Arabia and Qatar had committed to hosting training camps.

      The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the US would provide select Syrian rebels with machine gun-equipped pickup trucks and communications equipment to call in American airstrikes. Such air support played a critical role in repelling a concerted Islamic State offensive on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Kobane. 

      Ankara and Washington are likely to have somewhat different goals in training the rebels, who are fighting a two-front war against both Islamic State and the Syrian government. Turkey is a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ouster is seen as a priority. The US, meanwhile, has said it would also like to see Assad removed from power, but dealing with the rise of Islamic State is now a bigger concern.

      Turkey has been reluctant to take part in the US-led alliance dedicated to eradicating the extremist group and hasn't taken a frontline role despite land borders with both Iraq and Syria. Officials have seemed more open to the idea of participating in direct military action in recent months, although it would likely depends on the coalition's stance towards Assad.

      More than 210,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, when Arab Spring-inspired protests turned into an armed uprising after authorities violently cracked down on dissent. 

      Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck

      Topics: middle east, syria, turkey united state, aleppo, united nations, free syrian army, rebels, bashar al-assad, ceasefire

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