Syria truce to start at sundown but opposition seeks 'guarantees'

AFP , Monday 12 Sep 2016

Talks
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands at the conclusion of their press conference following their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland where they discussed the crisis in Syria September 9, 2016 (Photo: Reuters)

An internationally brokered ceasefire in Syria was due to begin at sundown on Monday but, with only hours to go, the country's opposition forces had yet to sign on.

And in a further sign of the deal's fragility, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad vowed to retake the whole country from "terrorists".

The ceasefire deal, announced on Friday after marathon talks between Russia and the United States, has been billed as the best chance yet to halt the bloodshed in Syria's five-year civil war.

As well as bringing a temporary end to the fighting, it aims to provide crucial aid to hundreds of thousands of desperate civilians.

Under the deal, an initial 48-hour ceasefire is to begin at 7:00 pm local time (1600 GMT), halting fighting in areas not held by militants like the Islamic State (IS) group.

Aid deliveries to the country's many besieged and "hard-to-reach" areas are set to simultaneously begin, with government and rebel forces ensuring unimpeded humanitarian access in particular to the divided and devastated city of Aleppo.

The ceasefire will be renewed every 48 hours and, if it holds for a week, Moscow and Washington will begin unprecedented joint targeting of militant forces including IS and the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front.

After years of stalled peace efforts and the failure of a landmark truce agreed in February, world powers are anxious to bring an end to a conflict that has left more than 290,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.

But Syria's opposition is deeply sceptical that Assad's regime will abide by the agreement and on Monday demanded guarantees before endorsing the deal.

"We want to know what the guarantees are," Salem al-Muslet, a spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition umbrella group, told AFP.

"We are asking for guarantees especially from the United States, which is a party to the agreement."

He said it was unclear how the deal defined the "terrorist" groups that will be targeted, and what the response would be to truce violations.

"We fear that Russia will classify all the Free Syrian Army (rebel factions) as terrorists," he said.

Washington has long supported moderate rebels fighting Assad, who in turn is backed by Russia and Iran.

Questions also remain about how the ceasefire will apply in parts of the country where the Fateh al-Sham Front, previously known as Al-Nusra Front, is present.

A crucial part of the deal calls for rebels to distance themselves from the group before joint US-Russian operations against it begin.

But Fateh al-Sham cooperates closely with many of Syria's rebels, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham faction, which on Sunday issued a scathing condemnation of the Russian-US deal.

Ahrar al-Sham's deputy leader Ali al-Omar said the agreement would "only serve to reinforce the regime and surround the revolution militarily."

"The people cannot accept half-solutions," he said in the message to mark the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha on Monday.

His remarks suggested a rejection of the deal but hours later Ahrar al-Sham's spokesman Ahmed Qara Ali told AFP that they were merely meant to note the deal's "drawbacks".

"The movement has not taken a position on the deal and will announce its position in a clear statement in consultation with other factions," he said.

Ahrar al-Sham is Syria's most powerful non-militant rebel group, with a commanding presence in Aleppo and Idlib province, which it rules as part of the Army of Conquest alliance with Fateh al-Sham.

Syria's government and its allies including Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement have already backed the truce.

But on Monday Assad made clear he was intent on recapturing all of Syria.

"The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists," he said as he toured Daraya, a former rebel stronghold that surrendered last month after a four-year government siege.

"The armed forces are continuing their work, relentlessly and without hesitation, regardless of internal or external circumstances," he added.

The run-up to the truce has also seen a spike in violence, with at least 74 people killed in air strikes on Aleppo and Idlib cities over the weekend.

New air strikes hit Aleppo on Monday, an AFP correspondent said.

Despite the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the city's streets were quiet, with few able to celebrate amid shortages created by a renewed government siege.

Aleppo has been roughly divided between rebel control in the east and government control in the west since mid-2012.

In August, rebel forces broke a weeks-long government siege on the east of the city, but regime troops restored the blockade on September 8.

"We hope there will be a ceasefire so that civilians can get a break," said Abu Abdullah, a resident of east Aleppo. "Civilians have no hope anymore."

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