Syrian cease-fire set to begin amid doubts

The Syrian cease-fire negotiated by the United States and Russia is set to begin Monday night amid uncertainty over who it will protect and for how long.

The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies Russia and Iran endorsed the deal, and Syrian opposition groups said Sunday they will abide by the deal despite deep reservations.

Over the weekend, Syrian and Turkish airstrikes continued after the deal was announced, killing dozens of people.

The death toll from Syrian government airstrikes Saturday on a market in the opposition-held city of Idlib rose to 58 Sunday, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Additional Syrian airstrikes in the contested city of Aleppo killed another 30 people, the group said.

Turkey's military said Sunday that its airstrikes killed 20 Islamic State fighters in northern Syria, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to continue operations in Syria against the militant group and Kurdish rebels he blames for launching attacks in Turkey, the Hurriet Daily News reported.

The cease-fire agreement, announced early Saturday in Geneva by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, calls for an end to fighting between the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition and Syrian government forces, including its allies Russia and Iran.

Not protected by the cease-fire are the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, a terrorist group that was al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate until it recently announced separating from that group.

The agreement also calls for both sides to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Syrian city of Aleppo and other communities under siege by government forces, plus eventual talks about a political transition. The United States wants Assad to step down from power, while Russia and Iran have been supporting the Syrian leader.

If the calm lasts, the agreement has the potential of fulfilling a major goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is to work with the United States against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria.

Kerry said such an arrangement would proceed if the cease-fire and humanitarian access hold for seven days. Then the cooperation with Russia would include sharing information on areas controlled by the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and opposition groups, he said.

Complicating the situation: Nearly all the U.S.-backed opposition groups are fighting alongside Nusra against the Syrian government. For the cease-fire to work, the rebels would have to separate from Nusra to avoid being struck by the airstrikes.

This is at least the third major cease-fire announcement since Russian airstrikes in Syria began a year ago. Russia has said it was attacking terrorists, but the U.S. said Russia and Syria focused on opposition forces.

While some Syrian opposition groups welcomed the truce, the hard-line group Ahrar al-Sham, said it opposes the agreement but will abide by it, according to the Associated Press.

“The factions welcome a cease-fire and welcome the incoming of aid, but have reservations. ... What are the sanctions if the regime doesn’t abide by it?” Zakaria Malahifji of the Aleppo-based opposition group Fastaqim told Al Arabiya. “A big part of the agreement serves the regime and doesn’t apply pressure on it and doesn’t serve the Syrian people."

After the weekend airstrikes, rebel commander Ahmad Saud, of the U.S.-backed Division 13 brigades, questioned whether the Syrian government can be trusted.

“What truce, when the regime commits a massacre in Idlib?” he said on Twitter. “I am starting to feel that the truce is a military trap to kill us more.”

Mohamed Elibiary, a former adviser to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, said the Syrian opposition has little to gain from the deal.

“This whole agreement by the U.S. and Russia puts the opposition on a track to be crushed,” Elibiary said.


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