Most of Syria ‘calm’ after ceasefire
Before the ceasefire taking effect, an emboldened President Bashar al-Assad vowed to take back all of Syria
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said major conflict zones in Syria were calm after a ceasefire took effect at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Monday.
“Calm is prevailing,” Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters, giving an early assessment of the impact of the agreement brokered by the United States and Russia.
He said there had however been some shelling by both rebel and government forces in the southwest of the country.
The Observatory gathers its information from a network of sources in Syria.
Abdulrahman made his statement soon after the truce, brokered by the United States and Russia, came into effect at 7:00 pm local time across Syria except in militant-held areas.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that early reports indicate some reduction of violence in Syria since the cessation of hostilities came into effect.
He told reporters at the State Department that it was too early to draw a definitive conclusion about how effective the truce will be, and that there would no doubt be some reports of violations “here and there.”
He also said that there will be challenges in the upcoming days in implementing the ceasefire.
Kerry also urged Syria’s warring parties to observe the brokered ceasefire and warned it could be a last chance to save the country. He said the ceasefire must hold in order to salvage any hope of the political settlement he said was the only way to end the war.
After the truce taking effect, the Syrian Army said on Monday it reserves the right to respond decisively to any violation by armed groups. The army also said that the ceasefire will be applied in all of Syria for seven days starting 7 p.m.
Meanwhile, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) opposition group welcomed the truce. The SNC described the ceasefire as the “correct step in the right path,” but urged that regime of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its practices in displacing Syrians.
The opposition group also called for ways to supervise and monitor commitment to the ceasefire while denouncing “terrorism” and vowing to fight the militant group ISIS.
After the ceasefire, Russian foreign ministry said humanitarian aid to the divided city of Aleppo via northern road of Castello will begin immediately.
Russia has also expressed concern over the Islamist militant group Ahrar al-Sham not pledging commitment to the ceasefire.
Moscow added it was counting on the US to influence “moderate opposition” in Syria to ensure full compliance to the truce.
Assad vows to retake all of Syria
Hours before the start of the ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, an emboldened President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Monday to take back all of Syria.
In a gesture loaded with symbolism, state television showed Assad visiting Daraya, a Damascus suburb long held by rebels but recaptured last month after fighters there surrendered in the face of a crushing siege. The Syrian leader performed Eid al-Adha prayers alongside other officials in a bare hall in a Daraya mosque.
“The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists,” Assad said in an interview broadcast by state media, flanked by his delegation at an otherwise deserted road junction.
He made no mention of the ceasefire agreement, but said the army would continue its work “without hesitation, regardless of any internal or external circumstances.”
The ceasefire was due to take effect at sundown, and includes improved humanitarian aid access and joint US and Russian targeting of hardline Islamists. But it faces big challenges, including how to separate nationalist rebels from the jihadists.
The rebels say the deal benefits Assad, who appears stronger than at any point since the early days of the war, with military support from Russia and Iran.
The capture of Daraya, a few kilometers (miles) from Damascus, followed years of siege and bombardment and has helped the government secure important areas to the southwest of the capital near an air base.
Backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, the army has also completely encircled the rebel-held half of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, which has been divided into government and opposition-held zones for years.
In the footage of his visit to Daraya, Assad, 51, appeared to be driving his own vehicle, a silver SUV, as he arrived at the mosque. He smiled and waved as he entered.
Syrian rebels to back truce
Syria’s major opposition armed groups will issue a statement in the coming hours backing a cessation of hostilities from sundown on Monday, complying with a deal brokered by the United States and Russia, a source within the opposition told Reuters before the ceasefire took effect.
“The decision is taken,” the opposition source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In the next few hours there will be a statement where we state that, but there will be a lot of harsh reservations and observations regarding the whole package. But as a final takeaway, we do agree.”
The source said the acceptance had already been communicated to the United States, which finalized the proposed package with Russia on Friday.
The statement will be backed by “the largest groups,” including Ahrar al-Sham, a militant group that had vocally criticized the deal, the source said.
The terms of the deal mean that if the peace holds for about nine days, Syria’s air force will be sidelined and joint US-Russian strikes will begin against militant groups that are banned from taking part in the truce - ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was until recently called the Nusra Front.
“Targeting Fateh al-Sham and treating it in a different way to the (Iran-backed) Shiite militia, and pushing us or expecting us to agree to a package where part of it is to bomb them, is going to create a lot of internal problems, and it’s already happening on the ground, and there’s a lot of tension,” the opposition source said.
“We want to cancel out any possibility of internal confrontation by clearly stating that we do not agree or endorse the idea of targeting Fateh al-Sham because the other side does have other groups that fit the designation criteria, but they are acting freely and with coverage inside Syria.”
Armed groups would continue to operate with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the opposition source said, because it was impossible to disentangle the forces that fought side by side.
“From our point of view it’s business as usual,” the source said, adding that it was unclear how the United States and Russia planned to cooperate on targeting the banned militants.
YPG accepts truce
The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said it would halt offensive operations in line with the US-Russian deal at sundown on Monday.
The YPG, which controls swathes of northern Syria, said in a statement it hoped the agreement would allow efforts to focus on the fight against ISIS and to prepare the necessary conditions for a political transition.
The Syrian Democratic Forces alliance, which includes the YPG, also announced it would abide by the agreement.
Daraya was evacuated following a local agreement between the army and rebels that let fighters escape to a rebel stronghold while civilians were sent to another government-held area. The UN’s aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, voiced “extreme concern,” emphasizing the harsh conditions that led to the surrender. The government has sought similar deals in other besieged areas.
Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war a year ago has tilted it in Assad’s favor, after rebel advances had posed a growing threat to his rule. It has also given Russia decisive leverage over international diplomacy that has thus far failed to make any progress towards a political settlement.
The Russia-US deal is the second attempt to bring about a ceasefire this year, after an agreement concluded in February collapsed as each side blamed the other for violations.
Washington, which supports some rebel factions, has been seeking to refocus the fighting in Syria on ISIS, which still controls swathes of the country and has not been included in any ceasefires.
Fighting raged on several key frontlines on Monday, including Aleppo and the southern province of Quneitra.
“There are no signs we are going to a truce so far,” said Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict.
The Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced 11 million people from their homes in the world’s worst refugee crisis. The new truce has official support from countries on both sides, including both Iran, Assad’s ally, and Turkey, a major sponsor of the insurgency against him.
Under the agreement, Russian-backed government forces and opposition groups, which are supported by the United States and Gulf States, would halt fighting for a while as a confidence building measure.
During this time, opposition fighters will have the chance to separate from militant groups in areas such as Aleppo.
But distinguishing rebels protected by the ceasefire from militants who are excluded from it is tricky, particularly with regards to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Jabhat Feteh al-Sham is playing a vital role in the battle for Aleppo allied with other rebel factions but is still outside the ceasefire.
The United States has said the deal includes agreement that the government will not fly combat missions in an agreed area on the pretext of hunting fighters from the former Nusra Front. However, the opposition says a loophole would allow the government to continue air strikes for up to nine days after the ceasefire takes effect.
Nationalist rebel groups, including factions backed by Assad’s foreign enemies, wrote to Washington on Sunday to express deep concerns over the truce. The letter, seen by Reuters, said the opposition groups would “cooperate positively” with a ceasefire but believed the terms favored Assad.
It said the ceasefire shared the flaw that allowed the government to scupper the previous truce: a lack of guarantees, monitoring mechanisms or sanctions against violators.
It also said Jabhet Fateh al-Sham should be included in the truce, as the group had not carried out attacks outside Syria despite its previous ties to al-Qaeda. Jabhet Fatah al-Sham said the deal aimed to weaken the “effective” anti-Assad forces, and to “bury” the revolution.
The government has made no comment on the agreement, but Syrian state media quoted what it called private sources as saying the government had given its approval.
The previous cessation of hostilities agreement resulted in a UN-led attempt to launch peace talks in Geneva. But these broke down before getting started in earnest.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said a new round of talks between the Syrian government and opposition may be held in early October, the RIA news agency said.
“I think that probably at the very beginning of October (UN Syria envoy Staffan) de Mistura should invite all the parties,” Bogdanov was quoted as saying.
(With AFP, Reuters)