Syria under the ceasefire that began last month is a less violent place — but it's still at war. Just a strange, halfway war.
Most of the country's front lines are quiet, thanks to the internationally-sponsored cessation of hostilities that remains in effect nationwide among all parties, except for the Islamic State group and the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front. Yet fighting has continued to rage on a handful of key fronts, and some now fear that a battle south of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, is spiraling out of control.
"South Aleppo seems on the verge of being more than just a flare-up," a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told VICE News.
Among the foreign diplomats, representatives of armed factions, and Syrian opposition politicians who spoke to VICE News, one opinion was shared almost universally: So long as the United States and Russia remain invested in a political solution to the war, the ceasefire signed in Geneva in February will not break down completely.
But for some fighters on the ground, that ceasefire has just not happened.
"What truce? The only truce is in the media," said Abu Yousef al-Muhajir, military spokesman for the Islamist rebel brigade Ahrar al-Sham. "The truth is that it was violated from day one when the regime bombed the coast."
The Syrian regime's forces are still pushing for gains in areas including the suburbs of the capital Damascus and the mountains of coastal Lattakia province. Meanwhile, international mediation has failed to stop clashes between rebels and Kurds around a neighborhood of Aleppo called al-Sheikh Maqsoud.
"Regrettably, there are no serious attempts to stop attacks" on the neighborhood, said Redur Xelil, spokesman for the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG, "even though we've sent hundreds of messages to the truce monitoring team, complete with photo and video evidence documenting these violations."
Fighting in south Aleppo broke out after mounting opposition frustration with these persistent violations, particularly after more than a dozen civilians in a rebel-held town near Damascus were killed by regime bombing.
Exactly how the fighting in south Aleppo kicked off last week remains unclear. Rebels who spoke to VICE News said they retaliated against an attempted regime advance, but a media official in the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front tweeted that Nusra had been preparing to to seize a key south Aleppo hill for more than a week. A Nusra attack on government positions may have prompted a regime counterattack, which drew other rebel factions manning sections of the the front lines, including some that signed the ceasefire. Nusra has mostly laid low since the partial cessation of hostilities, but opposition outrage over violations may have emboldened it to play spoiler.
'They will open up the fires of Hell on these militant groups along all fronts'
Syrian state media said "militant groups" had exploited the government's adherence to the ceasefire in a clear "abrogation of the truce." In a Tuesday statement, the commander of the government's south Aleppo operations said "it had become apparent Nusra Front duped the militant factions and dragged them with it into a grave violation of the truce."
"The Syrian Arab Army and its allies emphasize that soon they will open up the fires of Hell on these militant groups along all fronts — north, south, and west," he threatened.
"There have been ongoing violations by the regime — bombing, especially of civilians — and the opposition factions haven't done anything," said Haitham Abu Hammou, spokesman for Aleppo rebel faction al-Jabhah al-Shamiyyah, which is fighting in south Aleppo. "But they couldn't be silent about these violations in the south Aleppo countryside."
Since the weekend, fighting has raged all along the south Aleppo front. Nusra has held the hill against regime counterattacks and in the face of intense regime bombing, and on Tuesday, rebels even downed a regime warplane.
Yet, with the exception of Nusra Front, most factions fighting in south Aleppo and the country's other hotspots are emphatic that they're still committed to the truce. They stress that it is the other side that is violating it, and they frame any military action as legitimate self-defense.
Rebels had given a political mandate to the opposition's High Negotiating Committee, which has participated in negotiations with the regime, and the Committee still hasn't declared the truce over, Abu Hammou said.
The Kurdish YPG's Xelil was similarly critical of the ceasefire, but said his faction remained committed to the deal.
"From day one, the truce hasn't protected us," said Xelil. "Despite that, we still haven't resorted to military action outside the bounds of our legitimate right to self-defense, and we hope the truce doesn't collapse entirely."
'From day one, the truce hasn't protected us.'
A US State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Washington is working through the Geneva ceasefire working group and other channels to maintain the ceasefire.
"We're naturally concerned by, and want to see addressed, the recent, increased clashes," the official said. "[These include] those in south Aleppo, where extremists like Nusra, which are not party to the cessation of hostilities, are instigating fighting. We share Syrians' frustration about continued cessation of hostilities violations, mostly by the Assad regime."
In some ways, this depends on what you mean by ceasefire.
"I don't think the truce will collapse entirely so long as there's an American-Russian agreement on the cessation of hostilities. But partially, yes. In practice it's partially collapsed," said Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar, a member of the opposition High Negotiating Committee.
Some observers and combatants argue that regional powers — potentially including Iran, Turkey, and Qatar — are attempting to sabotage the ceasefire.
"Some are still gambling on a military victory, and some regional powers aren't convinced of a political solution, so they're using their Syrian allies to push for a military escalation," said Mouna Ghanem, deputy head of the Building the Syrian State opposition political party. "But I don't think the sponsoring countries, America and Russia, will allow the truce to collapse."
What could genuinely imperil the ceasefire is the breakdown of the political process. Negotiations for a political transition, the cessation of hostilities, and improved humanitarian access to besieged areas inside Syria are the three legs of the US-Russian attempt to end the Syrian war. Progress on one front can compensate for setbacks on another, but the total collapse of any one element could mean the implosion of the entire process.
And the political track may hit a wall at the next round of negotiations in Geneva, which is meant to address the most important and thorniest element of the political process: a negotiated transition.
Watch the VICE News documentary Syria's Next Generation of Fighters: Families on the Front _Line_**:**
Russia and the United States have agreed in principle on the need for a transition, but there remains a substantial unresolved gap between them on what that would entail. Washington has continued to emphasize that President Bashar al-Assad has no place in a future Syria, while on Tuesday, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov rejected Western insistence that Assad step down as part of any transition.
"The political process hasn't reached a dead end," said opposition politician Dr. Bashar. "Hopes are very weak, though, given the regime's lack of seriousness about a political solution and the substantial disparity between the opposition and regime's visions for a political outcome."
Even if Russia is committed enough to a political solution to sacrifice parts of the regime of its ally Assad, it is an open question whether it can oblige the regime to cooperate against its own interests.
"We have total confidence in the Russian leadership's efforts to stop the terrorist war being waged on Syria," said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Feisal al-Muqdad in an interview Tuesday.
But a political official in a rebel brigade who spoke on condition of anonymity was more skeptical of the extent to which the Syrian government was willing to listen to Moscow. "The regime is complying with its Russian ally and responding to its pressure," he said, "but only to the extent that it suits its own goals."
Follow Sam Heller on Twitter: @AbuJamajem