AMMAN/GENEVA: The United States and Russia reached a breakthrough deal early yesterday to try to restore peace in Syria, but air strikes hours later added to rebels’ doubts that any ceasefire could hold. The agreement, by the powers that back opposing sides in the five-year-old war, promises a nationwide truce from sundown tomorrow – the first day of Eid al-Adha, improved access for humanitarian aid and joint military targeting of hardline groups.
But hours later, jets bombed a marketplace in rebel-held Idlib in northwestern Syria, killing at least 25 people and wounding dozens, according to locals and rescue workers who said they believed the planes to be Russian. Idlib province has endured escalating strikes by Russian jets in recent months, according to international aid workers and residents, destroying scores of hospitals, bakeries and other infrastructure across rebel-held territory.
Aleppo was also hit from the air and fighting continued on the ground. The army attacked rebel-held areas, both sides said, pushing to maximize gains before the ceasefire deadline. Ten people were killed by barrel bombs dropped by army helicopters on the besieged rebel-held east of the city, and jets, either Syrian or Russian, bombed rebel-held towns in the northern countryside along important insurgent supply routes, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Insurgents said they were planning a counter-offensive. “The fighting is flaring on all the fronts of southern Aleppo,” rebel spokesman Captain Abdul Salam Abdul Razak said. Razak, of the Nour al-Din al Zinki Brigades, part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is backed by the West, said they were studying the peace deal but feared it merely gave the Syrian army a chance to gather forces and pour more Iranian-backed militias into Aleppo.
President Bashar Al-Assad’s government made no comment on the peace deal, but Syrian media were broadly positive. Syrian state news agency SANA reported that the “government has approved the agreement, and a cessation of hostilities will begin in Aleppo for humanitarian reasons”. Citing “informed sources”, it said “the entire agreement was reached with the knowledge of the Syrian government”.
Syria’s mainstream political opposition, the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said it had not received a copy of the deal and would only react after consulting members. A spokeswoman had earlier welcomed any deal that spared civilian lives but cast doubt on whether Moscow would be able to pressure Damascus to stop indiscriminate bombing.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called on all sides to respect the deal, which was finally reached after several failed attempts over recent weeks. “This requires halting all attacks, including aerial bombardments, and any attempts to gain additional territory at the expense of the parties to the cessation. It requires unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all of the besieged and hard-to-reach areas including Aleppo,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that despite continuing mistrust, the two sides had developed five documents that would enable coordination of the fight against terrorism and a revival of Syria’s failed truce. Both sides agreed not to release the documents publicly. “This all creates the necessary conditions for resumption of the political process, which has been stalling for a long time,” Lavrov said.
Previous peace efforts have crumbled within weeks, with the United States accusing Assad’s forces of attacking opposition groups and civilians. Kerry said the “bedrock” of the new deal was an agreement that the Syrian government would not fly combat missions in an agreed area on the pretext of hunting fighters from the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Under the new deal, both sides – Russian-backed government forces and rebel groups supported by the US and Gulf states, – are to halt fighting as a confidence building measure.
If the truce holds from tomorrow, Russia and the United States will begin seven days of preparatory work to set up a “joint implementation center”, where they will share information to distinguish territory controlled by Nusra from that held by other rebel groups. “We will jointly agree on strikes against terrorists to be carried out by the Russian and American air forces. We have agreed on the zones in which these strikes will be carried out,” said Lavrov. It will be followed by coordinated strikes against Al Nusra rebels and the Islamic State group – if it holds for a week, Lavrov said. “Only the Russian and American air forces will work in these zones,” Lavrov said.
For many FSA rebels, the idea of a clear separation from Nusra is problematic because on several fronts they fight together against the army and allied Iranian-backed militias. Fateh al-Sham has also played a major role in trying to end the siege of eastern Aleppo which many rebels say has boosted its popularity, and discussions are ongoing to possibly unify ranks under a broader opposition army. “Fateh al-Sham is a faction present on the ground and it takes part in most of the military operations, and the matter of separating it is not possible, particularly given that there are attempts to merge, within some factions, with Fateh al-Sham,” Fares Al-Bayoush, head of an FSA group called the Northern Division, told Reuters. – Agencies