A U.S.-Russia mediated ceasefire went into effect Monday in Syria, hours after government warplanes launched airstrikes around Aleppo and other Syrian provinces, prompting mounting skepticism and anger among rebel leaders who are already highly suspicious of the deal. They have said the ceasefire will only serve to boost President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Syria’s armed opposition issued a series of demands as well as requests for clarifications to the United States about the cessation of hostilities Monday, coinciding with the start of Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim holiday.
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President Assad didn’t help efforts to get rebels on board by pledging Monday to take back all of Syria. State television showed Assad visiting Daraya, a Damascus suburb recaptured last month by the government. The Syrian leader prayed alongside officials in a Daraya mosque and in a broadcast interview said: “The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists.”
He said the army would continue operations “without hesitation, regardless of any internal or external circumstances.”
On Sunday, several insurgent leaders criticized the cease-fire agreement, but stopped short of saying they wouldn’t accept it. The ultra-conservative Ahrar al-Sham, a close ally of the former al Qaida affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham Front, previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, announced Sunday it won’t honor the cease-fire. The group had condemned the deal earlier, but withheld full rejection.
In a video statement, the militias second in command condemned the superpower accord, dubbing it an effort to secure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and divide rebel factions.
“A rebellious people who have fought and suffered for six years cannot accept half-solutions,” said Ali al-Omar. But there were reports Monday the decision by Ahrar al-Sham wasn't unanimous among the faction’s leadership.
Opinion appeared to be hardening among other rebel leaders, who say they hold out little hope the deal will last or that the Assad regime will observe it.
Reflecting their concerns, the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee says it is calling for “guarantees” on the implementation of the truce before endorsing it. Salem al-Muslet, a spokesman for the HNC, raised concerns about the armed militias who have been left out of the deal because Russia and the U.S deem them terrorists.
“We want to know what the guarantees are,” he said. “What is the definition that has been chosen for ‘terrorism’, and what will the response be in case of violations? Will Russia abide by it, will the regime abide by it and halt its bombing and its crimes? We are asking for guarantees especially from the United States, which is a party to the agreement," the HNC spokesman told the AFP news agency.
HNC leaders say they have not received details about how the truce will be implemented nor the areas the truce covers. There are fears among rebels that the Assad regime will use the cease-fire to mop up pockets of insurgency around the capital Damascus. Insurgents are demanding also the release of prisoners and say that without an agreed political transition plan; the cease-fire will allow Assad to strengthen his military position.
The U.S.-Russia mediated truce deal, the second the superpowers have struck this year, calls for an initial 48-hour, renewable, cease-fire “anywhere where the opposition is present.” It also stipulates that aid agencies should not be blocked or impeded from accessing besieged towns and areas.
Residents inspect a damaged site after airstrikes on a market in the rebel controlled city of Idlib, Syria, Sept. 10, 2016.
Some rebel factions, but mainly the Assad regime, were faulted after the last cease-fire deal for blocking aid access. Under the terms of the new cease-fire accord Washington and Moscow will begin joint targeting of jihadists including Fateh al-Sham in a week.
For many rebel groups the proposed targeting of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) remains a key concern. For them the jihadist militia has been a crucial ally in defending insurgent-held districts in eastern Aleppo from a months-long brutal Assad regime offensive. “Very big questions remain surrounding how exactly the U.S. and Russia plan to determine areas where the opposition is sufficiently distant from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and where they are in fact too close and thus legitimate counterterrorism targets,” warns Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute and author of the book The Syrian Jihad.
He adds, “The armed opposition in Syria now faces what is perhaps its biggest and most momentous decision since they chose to take up arms against the Assad regime in 2011. There is no hiding the fact that mainstream opposition forces are extensively ‘marbled’ or ‘coupled’ with JFS forces on front-lines from Deraa in the south, to Damascus and throughout the northwest of the country.
Among ordinary Syrians a deadly weekend of airstrikes dimmed hopes about the cease-fire. At least 90 people were killed in weekend airstrikes in northwestern Syria, a monitoring group estimated. The airstrikes were focused on rebel-held areas in Idlib and Aleppo, according to the monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The worst were in Idlib where monitors said 61 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in a strike on a crowded market.