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World & Nation

Cease-fire begins in war-torn Syria, but civilians and officials worry about violations

Bashar Assad

Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, greets clerics in Dariya, a suburb of Damascus, in an image released by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency on Monday.

(Syrian Arab News Agency)

A cease-fire in Syria’s civil war got off to a shaky start Monday as the government and rebels accused each other of violations and the U.S. and Russia, which brokered the agreement, failed to clarify who was to blame.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov negotiated the seven-day truce, which was announced Saturday, but neither the Syrian government nor the rebels took part in the talks, and no one made clear how compliance would be monitored.

The cease-fire was backed by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

If the cease-fire takes hold, and food and medical supplies are delivered to the besieged eastern part of Aleppo and other cities, Moscow and Washington will initiate an exchange of intelligence and information to target attacks on the Islamic State extremist group.

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They will also target the Front for the Conquest of Syria, the group formerly known as Al Nusra Front, which had been affiliated with Al Qaeda, but which has achieved hero status among the U.S.-backed moderates because it helped break the siege of Aleppo last month. 

Kerry told reporters in Washington that there were “methods” for resolving questions about whether a party had violated the “cessation of hostilities” but he did not specify any actual punishment. Continued fighting would prevent Russia and the U.S. from forming a joint implementation center for coordination of future airstrikes, he said.

“There has to be an earnest good faith effort to make this work,” Kerry said in discussing the Syria deal with reporters in Washington. “And we will judge that very quickly.”

An effective cease-fire will also lead to a resumption of political talks for a transition to a broader government in Syria.

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But signs the cease-fire was taking hold were mixed at best. Al Ikhbaria, Syria’s official television, charged that rebels had bombed government positions in northern Aleppo with rockets and artillery and said the military retaliated by firing back.  

Aleppo Today TV reported that government helicopters dropped explosive cylinders on Handarat and Shafiq neighborhoods in the north of the city within 15 minutes of the start of the truce, which coincided with the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. 

Earlier in the day four barrel-bombs – long tubes filled with shrapnel and explosives and dropped from helicopters -- fell on civilian targets on Aleppo’s Qaterji  neighborhood, wounding three, and there were reports of barrel-bombings in five other neighborhoods.

At least 13 civilians were killed in the village of Maarat Misrin, near Idlib, and in the provincial capital itself, a mother and two children died in what local activists said was a Russian airstrike. In rebel-held Duma, near Damascus, three people were killed and many injured in government missile attacks, activists said.

The five years of fighting has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions.

But key players in the cease-fire appeared to have different interpretations of the content of the agreement. 

Russia, an Assad ally, formally announced the cease-fire “on the whole territory of the Syrian Arab Republic,”  but Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, the chief of the general staff operations, said the Russian air force would “continue airstrikes against terrorist targets in Syria.”

That raised concerns for many who say that for much of the last year, Russia has been bombing U.S.-backed moderate rebel forces, as well as hospitals, schools and other civilian targets while claiming it was targeting terrorists.

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For its part, the Syrian military announced a seven-day “regime of calm,” but warned that Syria reserved the right to respond to “any violation from the side of terrorist groups.”  Syria defines all opponents, including the U.S.-backed moderate opposition, as terrorist groups.

The military’s terminology is ominous for the Syrian population. The last time Syria announced a “regime of calm” was in early July,  when it launched a fierce offensive backed by Russian airstrikes that closed the last remaining supply route to  rebel-held Aleppo.

Assad, meanwhile, said Monday that the government planned to recapture the entire country from rebel forces. Before the cease-fire went into effect, Assad visited Dariya, a suburb of Damascus, the capital, recently evacuated by opposition fighters. 

The most controversial aspect of the U.S.-Russian accord is no doubt the plan for joint cooperation in fighting  the Front for the Conquest of Syria.  Rebel groups say that it is unfair to target a group that has cut its ties with Al Qaeda and not target the Lebanese Hezbollah, which is on the U.S. list  of terrorist organizations  and is fighting for the Syrian government.

In a statement issued Monday, 21 rebel groups said they’d welcome the cease-fire if it provides access for humanitarian aid to reach government-besieged cities but they would oppose any bombing of the Front for the Conquest of Syria. 

They voiced doubts that the government and its allies would abide by the truce but called for close monitoring.  It appeared that the groups neither endorsed nor rejected the accord, and a spokesman, Col. Hassan Hamadi, said the groups have “reservations” about the accord.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights in a report released Saturday said Russia has bombed 59 hospitals and clinics since it began its air intervention Sept. 30, 2015, killing 86 civilians, among them 26 medical personnel. Most of the attacks were in Aleppo, where about 300,000 people live in rebel-held eastern neighborhoods, and in Idlib, which is entirely under the control of rebel factions.

The United Nations has plans to send food and medical supplies to Aleppo and other besieged cities and towns, whose population totals more than 1 million. 

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But U.N. officials said under current plans, no U.N. personnel or vehicles will be sent into Aleppo and U.N. agencies will turn over supplies to local partners. That means there will be no monitoring of the cease-fire by U.N. personnel and no reporting by international observers of the aid deliveries.

Although many people were skeptical about the prospects for peace, children in Aleppo apparently had a much brighter outlook.

“The kids in Aleppo are still alive. They didn’t give up,”  Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a teacher, told reporters on an Internet newsroom connection. “They run, they play and laugh. It is fantastic to see life from the ashes of war.”

 

Gutman is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report. 

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UPDATES:

4:55 p.m.: This article was updated with more reaction to the cease-fire.

12:55 p.m.: This article was updated with statements by Syrian and Russian officials and additional reporting.

This article was originally published at 9:35 a.m.


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