A preliminary hurdle to the start of a US and Russian-brokered ceasefire in Syria has been cleared after the Assad government said it would accept a “cessation of hostilities” on the condition that attacks on Islamic State, al-Nusra and other UN-identified terrorist groups can continue.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad said it would work with Russia to define which groups and areas would be included in the cessation of hostilities plan, which is due to begin on Saturday.
The Syrian government said opposition groups could not be allowed to use the ceasefire to strengthen their military positions and this would be regarded as a breach of the agreement.
Russia and America’s joint statement on a ceasefire on Monday would not have been issued unless the two countries had relatively clear indications that its terms would be accepted by the key players, including the Syrian government, the opposition forces sponsored by Saudi Arabia, and Syrian Kurds.
Assad’s recent military advances around Aleppo – Syria’s second city – are largely due to the ferocity of Russian air force strikes against opposition positions.
There is scepticism that the ceasefire will hold due to the difficulties in marking out what territory is covered, and the way in which some opposition groups are interwoven with al-Nusra.
The Syrian government stressed the importance of sealing the borders, halting foreign support to armed groups and “preventing these organisations from strengthening their capabilities or changing their positions”, in order to avoid wrecking the agreement.
Assad believes Turkey has acted as a supply line for foreign fighters supporting both the “moderate” opposition and Isis.
Turkey has welcomed the ceasefire plan, but is under pressure from the UN to allow in tens of thousands more refugees massed on the Syrian border. They are fleeing from the fighting in the Aleppo area.
The Syrian high negotiating committee – the main umbrella organisation for Syrian opposition groups backed by the west and Saudi Arabia – said late on Monday that it accepted the terms of the ceasefire. However, it added that the plan was dependent on ending all sieges, allowing in humanitarian aid, releasing all detainees and ending bombardments by ground or air.
The British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, expressed scepticism about the ceasefire. Speaking in the House of Commons, he said: “Whatever the technicalities, the big picture is this: unless the level of Russian airstrikes dramatically decreases, this ceasefire will not hold because the moderate armed opposition cannot lay down their weapons and will not lay down their weapons while they are being annihilated from the air.
“The ceasefire agreement will allow continuing operations against Daesh and al-Nusra, and no one would disagree with that. The problem is the Russians claim to date that all of their action has been against those groups, so on the face of it the Russians could be entering into this arrangement on the basis that they are not going to change their behaviour at all. If so, it will fail before it gets off the ground so everything hinges on Russia’s good intentions.”
Source: The Guardian