It’s said that spring heralds a time of renewal, but it could mark the end for Syria’s fragile cease-fire.
The last few days have brought fresh skirmishes that threaten to derail the tenuous, U.N.-brokered “cessation of hostilities” between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and opposition factions. The limited cease-fire went into effect on Feb. 27 and had mostly been holding, despite some violations.
The recent clashes have also raised doubts as to whether a second round of peace talks, scheduled to begin at the end of next week, will now occur.
On Friday, jihadists with the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, spearheaded a punishing attack on Al Eis, a village nestled among a string of hills 16 miles southwest of Aleppo city on a supply route linking Hama and Aleppo provinces.
Al Eis’s strategic importance lies in its position overlooking the M5 highway, a vital artery connecting the Syrian capital, Damascus, in the southwest of the country, with the government-held city of Homs, in west-central Syria, and Aleppo in the north. Almost 300 miles long, the M5 serves as the backbone of the country’s road system.
Nusra Front militants deployed three suicide bombers and a number of armored vehicles to breach the government’s defensive lines and take over the village, according to a statement released by the group Friday.
But the jihadists had the cooperation of other Islamist groups, as well as so-called moderate rebel factions operating under the banner of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. These groups, which included participants in the Geneva talks peace such as Jaish Islam (Islam Army), unleashed an intense shelling barrage that paved the way for the militants to advance -- in violation of the cease-fire agreement.
The Nusra Front, along with the Islamic State extremist group, are not included in the cessation of hostilities. But the Nusra Front coordinates combat operations with other rebels, including groups that are parties to the cease-fire.
The offensives come after Syrian warplanes launched an airstrike Thursday that killed 33 people in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Deir Assafir, according to a pro-opposition watchdog, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The attack brought condemnation from France and the United States.
But Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the observatory, said the rebel offensive in southern Aleppo had been weeks in the making, and blamed both sides for the violations.
“I blame the regime in the first degree, and the Islamist groups and the rebels, because any action by their fighters, even the Nusra Front, is done under orders from regional countries,” Abdul Rahman said in a phone interview on Sunday.
“The cease-fire is over in those parts of Syria. There will have to be a response by the government.”
Rebels also launched offensives in Jabal Akrad, a verdant mountain range in the northern province of Latakia, snatching back villages and towns recently lost to them after a major bombing campaign by Russia at the end of last year.
The Russian Coordination Center, which monitors adherence to the cease-fire alongside its U.S. counterpart in the Jordanian capital, Amman, said there were “grave violations” of the cessation of hostilities by the rebels, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.
“We were surprised … and thank God … all the [rebel] groups heeded the call and were able to mount a counter-offensive,” said Maj. Yasser Abdul Rahim, head of an Aleppo-based command operation called “Aleppo Conquest” that includes moderate factions, in an interview with a local news outlet Sunday.
Others justified it because of past violations by the government.
“This is a violation of the cease-fire in response to the regime’s violation of the cease-fire,” said Zakariya Qaytaz, media spokesman for the Free Syrian Army group Division 13, in a conversation on social media Sunday.
He added that the government “did not stop its bombing” of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces, even though rebel groups had stopped firing.
Despite repeated infractions on both sides, the cease-fire -- the product of negotiations involving the United States, which supports some rebel groups, and Russia, which supports Assad -- had held to a surprising degree.
Although it did not cover all areas of the country, it nevertheless brought some respite from the horrors of the five-year civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people and spurred a refugee crisis on the shores of Europe.
Surprisingly absent from the battlefield were the Russian warplanes so instrumental in bringing gains to the government.
Russian air support has focused in recent weeks on the government’s campaign to dislodge Islamic State from the deserts of Homs province, giving the battered rebel ranks in northern Syria a chance to regroup.
Russia declared the withdrawal of the bulk of its forces from Syria in March, adding that it would maintain a presence in the country to pursue militant groups such as the Nusra Front and Islamic State.
Although Russia said it was pulling out because it had accomplished its mission, some saw it as Moscow’s way to deflate the government’s ambition to achieve a military win over all parts of Syria -- and force it to be less intransigent in the peace talks.
The government has insisted that there can be no discussions on the future of Assad and his place in the transitional process to peace, a nonstarter for the opposition.
But the withdrawal has also spooked the country’s economy. Syrian pound exchange rates against the dollar plunged 19% on the black market in the wake of the Russian pullback, according to the Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Hayat. It has put further strain on people in government territories who find their salaries buying a tenth of what they used to before the crisis.
Bulos is a special correspondent.