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All Sides Are Supposedly Violating Syria's Ceasefire — That Doesn't Mean It's a Total Failure

A week into Syria's cessation of hostilities, there are multiple reports of violations — but in many parts of the country people are able to live without fear of bombing for the first time in years.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Mar 4 2016, 8:50pm

EPA

It's been a week since a partial truce was declared in Syria, and while violations are being reported on all sides, the deal has been somewhat successful in containing hostilities.

On Friday a number of Syrian opposition groups accused the government of violating the ceasefire by firing on rebel-held positions and mobilizing forces near the front lines. Earlier in the week, Russia accused rebels of violating the ceasefire as well. European leaders, meanwhile, are urging restraint and hoping to build momentum towards further peace talks next week.

The US and Russia helped to broker what was called a "cessation of hostilities agreement" last month. The deal called on all parties in the conflict — excluding the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra front — to stop fighting each other. Strikes against Al Qaeda and ISIS were permitted under the terms of the deal.

Since the truce went into effect, fighting has slowed in Syria, but reports on the ground indicate that it has not halted altogether. A steady stream of alleged violations by both sides has the potential to hamper peace talks scheduled to begin on March 9. Opposition coordinator Riad Hijab said on Friday the conditions for talks were "not favorable" but it was too early to say whether they would happen or not.

Hijab said government forces had attacked more than 50 opposition-held areas where groups that approved the truce were based. Mohamad Alloush, a senior official in one of the largest rebel groups, Jaish al-Islam, told Reuters the government was mobilizing forces to "occupy very important strategic areas". 

Also on Friday, opposition groups reported that regime rockets hit the rebel-held town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, which is controlled by a coalition of rebel groups — some of which are party to the cease-fire, and some not.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based organization that tracks the conflict, also said that heavy shelling and rocket fire landed around the town of Ghasaniya near rebel-held Jisr al-Shughour on Friday. The Observatory also reported the first air strike against the rebel-held town of Douma near Damascus since the start of the cessation — it was not clear whether the planes were Russian or belonged to the Syrian air force.

On Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had counted 31 violations of the ceasefire from opposition forces.

Ceasefire violations are vetted by the International Syrian Support Group, an international body co-chaired by the US and Russia. But the group does not have an agreed-upon map of where exactly the ceasefire is supposed to be in effect.

Russia, for its part, claims it is striking groups outside of the ceasefire agreement. But some rebel commanders who have been on the receiving end of bombardments claim they are not working with terrorists; a commander in Homs told the news site Syria Direct on Friday that his men were under attack, and they had nothing to do with the Nusra front or the Islamic State.

In some ways, the Syrian opposition and its Russian antagonists appear at odds with Western powers over the success of the truce so far. UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday the agreement was holding but remained fragile and incidents had been contained. And the US State Department reported on Thursday there had been no significant violations in the preceding 24 hours — though reports that the State Department's monitoring facility in Washington was not properly staffed with Arabic speakers cast some doubt on its assessments.

Syrian President Assad said earlier this week that the militants had breached the deal from the first day but that his army was refraining from responding, to give the deal a chance.

Still, many parts of Syria have seen a reduction in hostilities over the course of the truce.

Much of southern Syria, including areas near the border with Jordan, has been calm, though a rebel spokesman told Reuters that he saw government forces mobilizing there. "If the truce ends, the regime is ready to attack in a number of areas," Abu Ghiath al-Shami of the Alwiyat Seif al-Sham group said. Before the ceasefire went into effect, the Syrian government, backed by Russian air power and fighters from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, made significant territorial gains against rebels since the new year, focused in areas of western Syria near the borders with Turkey and Jordan. On Thursday, Amnesty International accused the Syrian government and its Russian allies of targeting six separate medical facilities during that offensive.

Meanwhile, the opposition council, known as the High Negotiations Committee, has said humanitarian demands previously listed as conditions for peace talks have still not been met. These include free access for humanitarian aid to opposition-held areas blockaded by government forces, and a release of detainees. Though some shipments have been permitted during the ceasefire, many besieged areas of Syria cannot be regularly supplied by humanitarian groups. Jaish al-Islam's Alloush told Reuters that aid delivered in recent days to opposition-held areas "is not enough to meet 10 percent of the needs, and nothing has entered most of the areas".

The ceasefire, however, has permitted civilians in some parts of the country to move more freely in the streets, without fear of bombing or shelling. In fact, demonstrators held rallies in around a dozen rebel-held town across Syria on Friday, a chanting slogans against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Looking ahead to peace talks planned for March 9, the leaders of Russia, Germany, France, Italy and the UK convened a conference call on Friday where they pledged to build on the momentum of the truce to work towards a more permanent settlement.

A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister David Cameron told the Guardian that the call focused on a deal that would eventually include "a transition away from Assad."

"Everybody on the call had a common interest in defeating Daesh [Islamic State] in Syria and tackling the Islamist threat," the spokeswoman said. "Therefore it is in all our interest to support a peace process in the country that can lead to a stable, inclusive government that has the support of all Syrians."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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