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A Ceasefire Is Beginning in Syria — Except Where It Won't

At midnight Saturday, a truce brokered by the US and Russia goes into effect, but not in areas where "terrorists" are. And we don't know who gets to call whom a terrorist.

by Sam Heller
Feb 26 2016, 10:50am

UN special envoy for Syria Staffan De Mistura (L) and Syrian Deputy-Foreign Minister, Ayman Soussan (2-R) at the Four Seasons hotel at the end of a four-day visit, Damascus, Syria, 18 February 2016. Photo by Youssef Badawi / EPA

A ceasefire sponsored by Russia and the United States is supposed to go into effect across Syria this weekend. But, with mere hours to go, there is little clarity on which opposition factions and which areas will be covered by the ceasefire, and which will continue to be fair game for overlapping bombing campaigns by the Syrian regime, the Russian air force, and the US-led coalition.

The warring parties were apparently making the most of their last few hours of fighting on Friday, with heavy shelling reported to have hit rebel-held areas to the east of Damascus, and clashes between rebels and government forces taking place in the northwestern province of Latakia.

This "cessation of hostilities," which Russia and the United States jointly announced earlier this week, is set to begin at midnight tonight, local time. But, critically, the arrangement excludes the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, and other terrorist organizations designated by the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Other opposition factions have until noon Friday to commit to the deal and endorse a negotiated political solution. Otherwise, they too will be outside the bounds of the ceasefire. It falls on a Ceasefire Task Force led by the United States and Russia to delineate the geographic areas of factions that buy into the truce and the areas controlled by jihadists and other recalcitrant factions, which will apparently be a free-fire zone.

Related: The Syrian Government and Opposition Groups Agree to Temporary Truce

"This is a moment of truth for Russia," said a US State Department official who agreed to speak to VICE News on condition of anonymity. "The world can see what they agreed to in the joint statement. We have been clear with Russia that it's the time for deeds, not words."

But in the absence of any clarity on who will be a target, many rebels and activists inside opposition-held Syria say they expect this "cessation" to really mean just more bombing.

"The Russians see all the liberated areas the same," said Seif al Hamawi, an activist based in Hama in western Syria who uses a revolutionary pseudonym, speaking to VICE News over a messaging app. "They think everyone who opposes [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad is a terrorist they're allowed to bomb."

For actual jihadists, there is little suspense: they are obviously excluded from the deal.

The ceasefire "won't happen, and the coming days will bear witness," Nusra Front media official Abu Khattab al Maqdisi told VICE News. "These will be harsh days for this criminal regime and those with it."

He added that he expected other factions, ranging from Islamist rebels to nationalists, would stand alongside Nusra Front in rejecting the ceasefire. "That's what we hear from them," Maqdisi said. "It's not a matter of solidarity for Nusra's sake, they object to the truce on its own terms."

"When we talk about an external enemy or Bashar's regime," Maqdisi said, "then all these disputes are set aside and everyone — except for those with weak wills — stands as one."

Syrian policemen and citizens inspect the site of a twin bomb attack in the city of Homs on February 21, in which at least 48 people were killed according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The blasts occurred in the city's Zahraa neighborhood, populated mainly by members of President Bashar al Assad's Alawite sect, the Observatory said. Alawite districts of the central Syrian city have seen numerous deadly bombings, mostly claimed by the Islamic State and the Nusra Front jihadist groups. Photo by Stringer/EPA

But at least some in the opposition have already committed to the ceasefire. The High Negotiations Committee that represented the Syrian opposition at aborted Geneva negotiations earlier this month agreed to the deal Monday, albeit with reservations. The Southern Front rebel coalition has also endorsed the ceasefire.

Kurdish forces and the Syrian government have signed up for the ceasefire as well, although the Syrian state promised to continue military operations against not just the Nusra Front and the IS, but also "other terrorist organizations linked to them and to al Qaeda."

Related: No One Knows What Just Happened to the UN's First-Ever Humanitarian Airdrop in Syria

The commander of nationalist rebel brigade Jeish al Izzah, which last September was the first target of Russia's intervention in Syria, told VICE News his faction will also abide by the truce, although he said he doubted the regime and Russia would. "We'll agree to the truce to say to the world that we want peace," said Col. Jamil al Saleh, "because we know these criminals won't be able to adhere to it." He said on Wednesday that only hours earlier he had escaped Russian airstrikes on one of his brigade's bases.

Jeish al Izzah is part of a joint "operations room," or command, in Turkey that includes representatives from US intelligence and various regional and international partners. Saleh said that the operations room had not pressured its member factions to accept the ceasefire.

"There's a lot of leeway for the Russians and Assad"

Whether brigades like Jeish al Izzah continue to be bombed will be a key test of the ceasefire. The group is based in central Hama province in a town called al Latamneh, which has been subjected to some of the most relentless bombing of the war. Saleh insisted that there is no presence by the Nusra Front, the al Qaeda affiliate, around the town.

Other rebels seem set to either demand that negotiations over the ceasefire's terms be reopened, or to reject the deal outright. Opposition Syrians pointed to the license for continued bombing of the Nusra Front as ripe for abuse by Russia and the Syrian regime. "Russia said Nusra is excluded from the truce," said Aleppo media activist Mahmoud Hassano, "But whenever Russia has bombed something, whatever it was, it's said it was bombing Nusra headquarters. Meanwhile, it was actually bombing hospitals or schools."

"We have no doubt that [this permission to strike al Nusra will be used by Russia to target us and other factions," said an official source in Ahrar al Sham who requested anonymity. The Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have argued vigorously that Ahrar al Sham, a major hardline Islamist brigade, should be designated a terrorist organization.

Related: The Syrian Regime Is Close to a Victory That Could Turn the War

Some rebels also fear that the exclusion of the Nusra Front is just the start of a slippery slope on which one brigade after another will be made an official target. "These factions — and, most important among them, Ahrar al Sham — understand that after Nusra is singled out, it will be their turn next," said Maqdisi.

So far Ahrar al Sham has not announced its position on the ceasefire, but on Wednesday it said it had hit a meeting of Russian officers with a car bomb.

The problem, Syrians said, is that it is impossible to clearly delineate where the Nusra Front is and isn't. Southern Syria and some Damascus suburbs could be declared mostly free of the Nusra Front and included in the ceasefire. But they said that was impossible in Syria's north. Unlike the IS, the Nusra Front is commingled with other rebels throughout much of opposition-held Syria.

"You can't come up with a mechanism that parses out that this is Nusra and that isn't. So there's a lot of leeway for the Russians and Assad," said Hamawi, the activist from Hama.

Idlib province, at the heart of the rebel north, is expected to receive little respite under the ceasefire. Sections of western and southern Idlib are considered Nusra Front strongholds, although other rebels are also present in these areas.

A State Department official told VICE News that Syrian rebels and civilians would have to steer clear of areas where they know fighting will not stop.

"We expect that as a cessation of hostilities is implemented, parties on the ground will have an opportunity to distance themselves from groups excluded from the cessation," said the official.

Watch the VICE News documentary Jihadists vs. the Assad Regime: Syria's Rebel Advance:

In political terms, America and Russia's co-leadership of the Ceasefire Task Force seems to put the United States in the awkward position of cosigning the targets of Russian bombing. But the State Department official emphatically rejected the idea that the United States might be assuming political ownership of Russian or regime bombing: "We have been absolutely clear that indiscriminate attacks and attacks targeting civilians in Syria by both the Assad regime and Russia must stop, period." He pointed to UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which obliges member states to press for the end of any indiscriminate use of weapons.

But things may look different on the ground inside Syria. America and Russia "have agreed to strike the revolution, not just Nusra," said Aleppo activist Hassano.

For some, this is just more evidence of a global conspiracy to oppress Sunni Muslims — and that is the chief argument of al Qaeda and its Syrian branch, the Nusra Front.

The Nusra Front's Abu Khattab al Maqdisi told VICE News that America and Russia's coordination was nothing new: "They've just divided up roles [previously]. But now these theatrics are over." 

Follow Sam Heller on Twitter: @AbuJamajem

Related: More Than a Million Civilians Are Under Siege in Syria, Mostly by Regime, Report Says

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