Con­fu­sion sur­rounds Syria truce agree­ment

Baltimore Sun - - WORLD - By Philip Issa and Bassem Mroue

BEIRUT — A cease-fire went into ef­fect in Syria at sun­set Mon­day in the lat­est at­tempt led by the U.S. and Rus­sia to bring some quiet in the 5 year civil war.

Res­i­dents and ob­servers re­ported quiet in most of the coun­try hours af­ter the truce went into ef­fect, though ac­tivists said airstrikes took place on con­tested ar­eas around the north­ern city of Aleppo.

But the most pow­er­ful rebel groups have shown deep mis­giv­ings over the cease-fire deal, which was crafted with­out their in­put last week­end in Geneva be­tween the top U.S. and Rus­sian diplo­mats. Hours af­ter it went into force, a coali­tion of rebel fac­tions put out a state­ment that stopped short of com­mit­ting to the cease-fire, a re­flec­tion of their dis­trust of the gov­ern­ment.

Con­fu­sion also sur­rounded the cease-fire Mon­day as Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry said the U.S. and Rus­sia could per­mit Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s gov­ern- ment to launch new airstrikes against al- Qaidalinked Jab­hat Fatah alSham, for­merly the Nusra Front. The State Depart­ment quickly re­versed it­self.

Spokesman John Kirby said later there were no pro­vi­sions un­der the na­tion­wide truce for U.S.-Rus­sian au­tho­riza­tion of bomb­ing mis­sions by As­sad’s forces. “This is not some­thing we could ever en­vi­sion do­ing,” he said.

While Kirby called his boss’ re­marks “in­cor­rect,” Kerry’s state­ment re­flected the gen­eral murk­i­ness of an agree­ment that hasn’t been pre­sented pub­licly in writ­ten form. The deal came af­ter marathon ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Kerry and Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov last Fri­day; de­scrip­tions by the two diplo­mats rep­re­sent the only pub­lic ex­pla­na­tion of what was agreed to.

The U.S. had never pre­vi­ously spo­ken of ap­prov­ing mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions by As­sad.

Later, Kerry’s spokesman said a “pri­mary pur­pose of this agree­ment, from our per­spec­tive, is to pre­vent the Syr­ian regime air force from fly­ing or strik­ing in any ar­eas in which the op­po­si­tion or Nusra are present.”

Once U.S.-Rus­sian mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion is es­tab­lished, Kirby said, the fo­cus would be to “co­or­di­nate mil­i­tary ac­tion be­tween the U.S. and Rus­sia, not for any other party.” The U.S. and Rus­sia would tar­get mil­i­tants in­clud­ing the al-Qaida-linked in­sur­gents.

Kerry im­plored all of Syria’s war­ring sides to ad­here to the cease-fire. He said that there has been a re­duc­tion in vi­o­lence in its first hours and that it of­fers an op­por­tu­nity for peace.

How­ever, the al-Qaidalinked in­sur­gents are closely al­lied to many rebel fac­tions and are a pow­er­ful force in the de­fense of Aleppo in par­tic­u­lar. That raises the danger that con­tin­ued airstrikes will draw rebels into re­tal­i­a­tion, even­tu­ally lead­ing to the cease-fire’s col­lapse.

Compounding the sit­u­a­tion, a group of 21 rebel fac­tions is­sued a state­ment in which they warned against tar­get­ing al-Qaidalinked mil­i­tants. The state­ment was non­com­mit­tal about whether the groups would join the cease-fire.

AMEER ALHALBI/GETTY-AFP

Syr­ian res­i­dents car­ry­ing ba­bies make their way Sun­day through war-torn Aleppo.

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