Nearly 100 rebel groups sign up to Syria truce
BEIRUT // Despite reservations, nearly 100 Syrian rebel groups have said they will take part in a countrywide, two-week ceasefire scheduled to go into effect on Saturday.
If it holds, the temporary truce will be the first time in five years that pro-government forces and the opposition stop fighting across the country and an opportunity to lay the groundwork for more advanced negotiations to end the conflict. If it fails, it could harden mistrust and push a negotiated settlement to the war even farther away.
The temporary cessation of hostilities is the result of a plan presented by the US and Russia last week. The ceasefire does not extend to ISIL, Al Qaeda’s Syria branch Jabhat Al Nusra or groups defined as terrorist organisations by the United Nations Security Council.
Factions had until noon on Friday to agree to take part in the cessation of hostilities. The High Negotiations Committee – the body created to represent the Syrian opposition in any talks with the government – said 97 rebel groups had done so.
In Moscow for an Arab-Russian cooperation forum, Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed said the UAE welcomed the US-Russian truce in Syria but warned of Iran’s support for fighting groups in the conflict, saying it would “lead to problems” if it continued. Sheikh Abdullah added that groups such as ISIL and Al Nusra should not be differentiated from groups backed by Iran.
“This position is not justification for terrorism in any form, but if the international community is trying to eliminate ISIL and Al Nusra without returning to it, it should not dismiss what is done by Hizbollah, Abu Al Fadl Al Abbas and Badr brigades in Syria and Iraq,” said Sheikh Abdullah, who headed the UAE delegation.
The Foreign Minister stressd that there should be progress on all three tracks of a Syria settlement: improving the humanitarian situation, reaching a truce, as well as a political settlement, warning that inaction on any of these would have serious consequences.
Members of the 17-nation International Syria Support Group were meeting in Geneva on Friday to work out further details of the cessation of hostilities, such as defining areas that will fall under the partial truce and setting up monitoring mechanisms, before it is expected to be endorsed by the UN Security Council.
The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has said he hopes the agreement will lead to a resumption of peace talks which collapsed earlier this month in Geneva.
Those involved in setting up the truce have expressed hopes that it will succeed, but remain sceptical that it will work.
“None of us are under any illusions. We’re all aware of the many potential pitfalls, and there are plenty of reasons for scepticism, but history would judge us harshly if we did not do our part in at least trying to end this terrible conflict with diplomacy,” said US president Barack Obama on Thursday. “A lot of that is going to depend on whether the Syrian regime, Russia, and their allies live up to their commitments.”
On Friday, Russian president Vladimir Putin once again vowed to continue bombing ISIL, Al Nusra and other “terrorist groups” in Syria despite the ceasefire.
The US also plans to continue its attacks on ISIL. But there is substantial concern that Russia and the Syrian government will continue hitting non-extremist rebel groups who have agreed to the truce. The regime of Bashar Al Assad and its allies have regularly used “terrorist” as a catch-all term for armed opposition groups and attacks on Free Syrian Army units have been claimed as attacks on ISIL and Al Nusra by Russia and the Syrian government.
Speaking at a meeting of the FSB security service in Moscow, Mr Putin again underlined that Russia’s definition of terrorist organisations in Syria differed from the American one, saying “there are other terrorist oragnisations apart from the Islamic State.”
As a number of Syrian factions have dealings and even alliances with Al Nusra, there is a possibility they could be targeted.
Russian jets and Syrian government forces stepped up their attacks in the hours ahead of the ceasefire. Rebel targets were hit countrywide, with Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, describing the attacks as “more intense than usual”.
The monitoring group said 40 air strikes hit the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Even for rebels not affiliated with Al Nusra, simply holding territory near the group could exclude them from the ceasefire: on Wednesday, a Syrian general said the Damascus suburb of Daraya would not be included in the truce because Al Nusra was present in the area.
In a recording released on Friday, Al Nusra leader Abu Mohamad Al Golani rejected the ceasefire and called on fighters in Syria to step up attacks on government forces and their allies. “Beware of this trick from the West and America because everyone is pushing you to go back under the thumb of the oppressive regime,” he said.
He added that if the war was not resolved, conflict could seep into other countries in the region, including those in the Arabian Peninsula.
Turkey voiced its support for the ceasefire Friday while reiterating concerns about its success.
“We support this ceasefire in principle, but unfortunately we have serious concerns about the future of this ceasefire as fighting goes on,” said Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ankara has indicated that it may continue attacks on the Kurdish YPG militia. Turkey began hitting the YPG north of Aleppo on February 13 after an alliance led by the Kurdish group took advantage of Russian air strikes and a government offensive to seize rebel territory. Turkish rhetoric against the group has only increased since they accused it of carrying out a February 17 bombing in Ankara that killed 29 people.
On Thursday, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would not hesitate to attack targets in Syria during the truce if the country was threatened.
“All must know that this ceasefire is only valid for Syria and the warring sides in the country,” he said. “If any of them poses a threat to Turkey’s security, it becomes non-binding for us.”
Four Saudi F-15 fighter jets arrived in Turkey’s Incirlik air base on Friday. Saudi Arabia had said it was deploying jets to Turkey to take part in the air campaign against ISIL.
Since UN-brokered peace talks between the government and opposition faltered earlier this month, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have mentioned the possibility of taking part in an anti-ISIL ground operation in Syria if they can gain the support of the US-led coalition against the extremists.
* With additional reporting from Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse
Updated: February 27, 2016 04:00 AM