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Syrian rebels send mixed signals on truce

September 12, 2016

The hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and Free Syrian Army rebels have criticized the terms of a truce with the Syrian regime. But the regime, Iran and Hezbollah have said they agree to the conditions.

Syrien Truppen der Opposition greifen Stellungen des IS nahe Aleppo an
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Anadolu/H. Nasir

A truce in Syria was cast into doubt as various rebel factions and a powerful Islamist group sent mixed signals about their adherence less than 24 hours before the truce was set to go into effect.

The ceasefire, agreed to after weeks of tough talks between Russia and the United States, is to go into effect at sundown on Monday in a bid to create the groundwork for restarting stalled peace talks to end over five years of conflict.

Ahead of implementation, the hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham criticized the truce in a statement, without explicitly saying that it would not abide by its terms.

One of the most powerful armed Islamist groups in the country, Ahrar al-Sham, is close to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was formerly known as the Nusra Front until it broke formal allegiance to al-Qaeda and changed its name last month.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) are not included in the ceasefire arrangement.

The United States warned on Saturday of "dire consequences" for any rebel group that cooperated with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The United States for months has sought for rebels factions backed by the West, Turkey and Arab Gulf states to distance themselves from al-Qaeda.

Ahrar al-Sham's deputy leader Ali al-Omar criticized the truce in a video on Sunday and slammed the exclusion of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

"The Russian-American deal... will send all the sacrifices and gains of our people who have risen up into smoke. It will only serve to reinforce the regime and surround the revolution militarily," he said.

Separately, Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, some of which also cooperate with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, wrote the United States that they would "cooperate positively" with the truce even as they did not explicitly say they would maintain a ceasefire.

The FSA said they were concerned over several aspects of the truce that would only benefit the Syrian regime.

They added that the exclusion of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham from the ceasefire would be used as an excuse by Russia and the Syrian regime to bomb other rebel groups. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham cooperates with or operates in close proximity with a number of rebel groups.

Syria's main political and military opposition grouping, the High Negotiations Committee, has not yet issued a statement whether its forces would comply with the ceasefire.

The ceasefire agreement, which state news agency SANA said the Syrian government has signed onto, would last for 48 hours before being extended. Assad and Hezbollah-backer Iran accepted the deal on Sunday.

As part of the deal, the strategic Castello Road into Aleppo would be demilitarized to allow aid into the rebel controlled eastern part of the city where tens of thousands of civilians have been besieged for weeks. Syrian regime jets would also commit to stopping bombings on civilians.

If the truce holds for a week, the United States and Russia would then cooperate against jihadist groups like IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

cw/gsw (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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