The success of a U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement in Syria hinges on the fate of one extremist faction — and it's not Islamic State.
On Monday, the U.S. and Russia, chairs of the 17-nation International Syria Support Group seeking to end the war in Syria, set a deadline of midnight Friday for a truce to begin among the belligerents in Syria, where a multitude of rebel factions are fighting to wrest control of the country from forces allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The cessation of hostilities applies "to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities against any other parties," according to the U.S. State Department.
But the deal excludes groups that the United Nations Security Council has designated as terrorist organizations, such as Islamic State.
That caveat also includes Al Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda affiliate that has been an essential player in the ranks of the Syrian armed opposition since early 2012.
Its militants, battle-hardened veterans from other theaters such as Iraq and Afghanistan, are known for their relentlessness, shooting until they run out of ammunition and then detonating explosives belts. They have become the shock troops in the fight against the government.
And although so-called moderate rebels operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army claim they shun the extremists for fear of losing Western support, many freely acknowledge they work with Al Nusra and other Islamist groups to achieve success on the battlefield.
"There is no existence for a cease-fire with the targeting of the Nusra Front, for we are a part of it and it is a part of us," tweeted Abu Hamza, the nom de guerre of a media official with Ahrar al Sham, which has cast itself as a moderate group despite being co-founded by an Al Qaeda operative.
The crux of the agreement may be in the fine print, which calls for the collection of "aggregated data that delineates territory" held by the groups that are parties to the deal, while marking the territory held by Islamic State, Al Nusra Front "and other terrorist organizations designated by the U.N. Security Council, which are excluded from the cessation of hostilities."
Military action, including airstrikes, by the Syrian government, Russia and the U.S.-led coalition will continue against those groups, the agreement says.
This may work in territory controlled by Islamic State, which operates in areas where other factions have no presence. Al Nusra Front, however, can be found throughout rebel-controlled areas, making delineation a virtually impossible task in a Swiss-cheese battlefield where the bases and headquarters of different factions exist in the same town, village and even neighborhood.
Murad Shawakh, a resident of the northwestern town of Azaz who was reached via social media on Wednesday, said Al Nusra Front had 5,000 insurgents spread out over the northern provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama.
"No one expects the cease-fire to happen there, since all these areas have Al Nusra Front," he said.
Rebels also insisted that the inclusion of Al Nusra Front was a ploy for Russia to continue its bombing campaign against Assad's enemies.
"Russia intervened under the excuse of fighting Daesh, but in truth it bombed and destroyed areas that included the Free Syrian Army," said Col. Mohammad Ahmad, a commander with the Aleppo-based Levant Front faction, referring to Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.
"Now they put Nusra in there as well so as to justify their bombing of us again," he said.
If the limited cease-fire does take place, observers say, the rebels will have no choice but to fight Al Nusra Front.
"It is not enough in the cease-fire for the warring parties to promise not to fire at each other," wrote Louay Hussein, a prominent opposition politician, on his Facebook page Monday. "Instead it means those parties must accept to fight Daesh, Al Nusra Front, any group deemed by the great powers to be a terrorist organization."
"This is embarrassing for the [rebel] factions, who will be forced to fight the allies of yesterday and others, and indeed may be forced to cooperate with the regime's army to do so," he said.
Bulos is a special correspondent.
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