Years of mistrust
Perhaps the most prominent obstacle to the implementation of the deal is deep mistrust between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel groups.
After five years of war, each side is sceptical of the other’s willingness to adhere to a ceasefire and previously attempted truces have failed.
Most recently, a cessation of hostilities brokered by the US and Russia in February led to a drop in violence on major fronts but frayed several weeks later.
Daily bombardment and indiscriminate attacks on civilians resumed, particularly in the battleground northern city of Aleppo.
Syria’s regime calls all its armed opponents “terrorists”, and Lavrov criticised the opposition for issuing “ultimatums, the refusals to cooperate, et cetera” as he announced the new deal Friday.
Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute warned rebels “have little faith in a long-term cessation of hostilities holding”.
Meanwhile, Syria’s opposition High Negotiations Committee said Saturday it did not trust the regime to commit to the truce without Russian pressure.
“We don’t expect the regime to (comply to the deal) of its own free will. We’re not counting on the regime at all,” said leading HNC member Bassma Kodmani.
As part of the deal, opposition groups must separate themselves from the powerful jihadists of the Fateh al-Sham Front, which changed its name from Al-Nusra Front after breaking its ties to Al-Qaeda.
To fight off the regime, rebels and Islamist groups have allied themselves with Fateh al-Sham, particularly in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.
The HNC’s Kodmani said rebels had been forced to ally with jihadists because of the regime’s use of siege tactics, but they would break that alliance if the truce held.
“The moderate groups will reorganise and distance themselves from the radical groups. We will do our part,” she said.
But experts are more doubtful.
Lister said rebels had not indicated willingness to break off that alliance, which they see as “a military necessity”.
“To them, doing so means effectively ceding territory to the regime… It will be hard to change this mindset,” he said.
A web of actors
Syria’s war has seen the country carved out into zones controlled by competing forces: regime, rebels, Kurds and jihadists.
But it has also drawn in a myriad of regional and international powers on different sides of the conflict.
The deal won support on Saturday from Turkey, which is a key rebel backer but has recently repaired relations with regime ally Russia.
But steadfast Assad supporter Iran has yet to react.
“Ultimately, I’d argue that we also need Iran’s public agreement just as much as anyone else’s,” Lister wrote.
“If Tehran sees this (deal) as moving towards a US-Russian political compromise in Damascus, it may well prove to be an active spoiler.”
In announcing the agreement, Lavrov conceded there were “a lot of stakeholders involved inside and outside Syria — all that, of course, did not help us.”
And Syria’s crisis, Kerry said, “is complex for reasons that we all understand — the number of stakeholders with different agendas, the wounds that have been inflicted by years of fighting, the ideological and sectarian divides, the urban and suburban war zones, the brutality of extremists, and the unhelpful actions of some outside powers.”
Ash Carter Warns Russia Against Interfering in ‘Democratic Process’ (Carter says Russia is eroding the international order)
The United States and Russia hailed a breakthrough deal on Saturday to put Syria’s peace process back on track, including a nationwide truce effective from sundown on Monday, improved humanitarian aid access and joint military targeting of banned Islamist groups.
“Today, Sergei Lavrov and I, on behalf of our presidents and our countries, call on every Syrian stakeholder to support the plan that the United States and Russia have reached, to … bring this catastrophic conflict to the quickest possible end through a political process,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a news conference after marathon talks in the Swiss city.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that despite continuing mistrust, the two sides had developed five documents that would revive a failed truce agreed in February and enable military coordination between the U.S. and Russia against militant groups in Syria.
Both sides agreed not to release the documents publicly.
“This all creates the necessary conditions for resumption of the political process, which has been stalling for a long time,” Lavrov told a news conference.
The deal followed talks that stretched late into Friday night and several failed attempts to hammer out a deal over the past two weeks. The announcement on Friday was delayed as Kerry and U.S. negotiators consulted with officials in Washington.
“The Obama administration, the United States, is going the extra mile here because we believe that Russia, and my colleague (Lavrov), have the ability to press the Assad regime to stop this conflict and to come to the table and make peace,” he said.
Previous efforts to forge agreements to stop the fighting and deliver humanitarian aid to besieged communities in Syria have crumbled within weeks, with the United States accusing Assad’s forces of attacking opposition groups and civilians.
Kerry said the “bedrock” of the new deal was an agreement that the Syrian government would not fly combat missions in an agreed area on the pretext of hunting fighters from the banned Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
“That should put an end to the barrel bombs, and an end to the indiscriminate bombing, and it has the potential to change the nature of the conflict.”
Under the agreement, Russian-backed government forces and opposition groups, supported by the United States and Gulf States, would halt fighting for a while as a confidence building measure. During this time, opposition fighters will have the chance to separate from militant groups in areas, such as Aleppo, where they have become intermingled.
“WE MUST GO AFTER THESE TERRORISTS,” KERRY SAYS
If the truce holds from Monday, Russia and the United States will begin seven days of preparatory work to set up a “joint implementation center”, where they will share information to delineate territory controlled by Nusra and opposition groups.
Both warring sides would pull back from the strategic Castello Road in Aleppo to create a demilitarized zone, while opposition and government groups would both have to provide safe and unhindered access via Ramouseh in the south of the city.
“We must go after these terrorists,” Kerry said. “Not indiscriminately, but in a strategic, precise and judicious manner so they cannot continue to use the regime’s indiscriminate bombing to rally people to their hateful crimes.”
All sides in the conflict would need to adhere to the nationwide truce, Kerry added, cautioning opposition fighters that if they did not separate from Nusra they would not be spared from air attacks.
“This requires halting all attacks, including aerial bombardments, and any attempts to gain additional territory at the expense of the parties to the cessation. It requires unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all of the besieged and hard-to-reach areas including Aleppo.”
Pentagon and U.S. intelligence officials have spoken out against the idea of closer military cooperation with Russia, in particular the sharing of locations of opposition groups that have fought to topple Assad.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who only days ago delivered a forceful speech in England criticizing Russia, has long been skeptical of Moscow’s intentions in Syria.
The Pentagon said in a statement it would carefully monitor the “preliminary understanding” agreed on Friday and cautioned the Assad regime and its backer, Russia, to stick to deal requirements.
“Those commitments must be fully met before any potential military cooperation can occur,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said. “We will be watching closely the implementation of this understanding in the days ahead.”
The United States and Russia have backed opposite sides in Syria’s civil war, with few signs of an end in sight to more than five years of conflict, which killed more than 400,000 people and drove tens of thousands of refugees into Europe.
The United Nations said on Friday the Syrian government had effectively stopped aid convoys this month and the besieged city of Aleppo was close to running out of fuel, making the talks even more urgent.
The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the announcement, saying in a statement that it had provided “clear rules” for a cessation of hostilities and would allow warring sides to resume political talks on a transition.
(Writing by Tom Miles and Lesley Wroughton Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
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