The Washington Post Sunday

In Syria, the truce be­gins to take hold

SCAT­TERED SKIR­MISHES BUT MOSTLY SI­LENCE

- BY LIZ SLY AND ZAKARIA ZAKARIA Military · Terrorism · European Politics · Drone Strikes · Middle East News · Latin America News · Politics · Middle East Politics · Warfare and Conflicts · World Politics · Syria · Turkey · Idlib · United States of America · Aleppo · Russia · Russian Empire · Moscow · ISIS · al-Qaeda · The Nusra Front · United Nations · Damascus · Dara · Geneva · İbrahim Kalın · Recep Tayyip Erdogan · Ankara · United States Armed Forces · Syrian Democratic Forces · Hama · Staffan de Mistura · Lattakia · Tal Abyad

Respite raises hopes of be­gin­ning of an end to war

gaziantep, turkey — The un­think­able hap­pened in Syria on Satur­day as an in­ter­na­tion­ally man­dated truce un­ex­pect­edly took hold across much of the coun­try, rais­ing hopes that the be­gin­ning of an end to the five-year-old cri­sis may be in sight.

There were scat­tered skir­mishes and bursts of ar­tillery fire across some of the front lines, a car bomb killed two peo­ple in the prov­ince of Hama, and Syr­ian govern­ment war­planes dropped bar­rel bombs on a vil­lage in Idlib prov­ince, with­out caus­ing ca­su­al­ties.

But for the first time in as long as any­one can re­mem­ber, the guns were al­most com­pletely silent, of­fer­ing Syr­i­ans a wel­come respite from the re­lent­less blood­shed that has killed in ex­cess of a quar­ter of a mil­lion peo­ple.

“We have not ex­pe­ri­enced such a thing since the be­gin­ning of the rev­o­lu­tion,” said Maj. Jamil al-Saleh, com­man­der of the U. S.-backed Ta­jamu al-Izza brigade in the Hama prov­ince

town of Latam­neh. He and his men were tak­ing ad­van­tage of the calm to clear the rub­ble from more than 50 airstrikes in the town dur­ing the pre­vi­ous 48 hours, con­ducted by Rus­sian war­planes in a late blitz ap­par­ently aimed at se­cur­ing max­i­mum ad­van­tage be­fore the truce went into ef­fect.

There were no planes in the skies of the much-bombed city of Aleppo for the first time in days, and res­i­dents there ven­tured into the streets with new­found con­fi­dence, said Ameen al-Hal­abi, an ac­tivist liv­ing in a rebel-held neigh­bor­hood.

“To­day is so dif­fer­ent. Peo­ple feel safe, and you can feel more life in the streets,” he said.

Rus­sia’s De­fense Min­istry told re­porters in Moscow that the Rus­sian air force had com­pletely sus­pended airstrikes over Syria on Satur­day to en­cour­age the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the two-week truce. But a min­istry spokesman in­di­cated that Rus­sia may soon re­sume bom­bard­ments against those groups not cov­ered by the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties agree­ment: the Is­lamic State and the al-Qaeda-af­fil­i­ated Jab­hat al-Nusra.

The sus­pen­sion of the strikes “does not mean that Daesh or Nusra Front ter­ror­ists may breathe freely. We are in con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion all across Syria,” said Lt. Gen. Sergei Ku­ralenko, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for Is­lamic State, in com­ments quoted by the Rus­sian Sputnik news agency.

This was the first at­tempt by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to bring about a cease-fire since a U.N.-led ef­fort in 2012 col­lapsed within hours, and ex­pec­ta­tions were low that this one would suc­ceed.

The ex­clu­sion of Jab­hat al-Nusra was one of the rea­sons why Syr­i­ans had low ex­pec­ta­tions. Jab­hat al-Nusra fight­ers are scat­tered across rebel ar­eas, mak­ing it hard to dis­tin­guish rebel po­si­tions from Jab­hat al-Nusra ones and in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of bom­bard­ments tar­get­ing all groups.

Both sides to the con­flict ex­changed al­le­ga­tions of vi­o­la­tions, with the Syr­ian govern­ment ac­cus­ing the rebels of fir­ing shells into the cap­i­tal city, Da­m­as­cus, and the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion say­ing the govern­ment had in­fringed the truce in 15 lo­ca­tions by day’s end.

But for the most part, there was sim­ply wide­spread re­lief that the blood­shed had paused at all, even if only for a day.

“Over­all, there is a mood of sur­prise that at­tacks have re­duced sig­nif­i­cantly,” said a state­ment from the White Hel­mets civil de­fense group, which was mon­i­tor­ing the vi­o­lence na­tion­wide. Dur­ing a call to the White Hel­mets team in the south­ern prov­ince of Daraa, one mem­ber put on the speak­er­phone and asked: “Can you hear that? It is the sound of birds singing.”

The calm bol­stered hopes that a stalled peace ef­fort to se­cure a broad set­tle­ment to the war may soon be re­vived. Staffan de Mis­tura, the U.N. spe­cial en­voy for Syria, has ten­ta­tively set March 7 as the date for the re­sump­tion of the talks in Geneva, which col­lapsed with­out progress this month.

The truce, sched­uled ini­tially to last for two weeks, is be­ing of­fi­cially re­ferred to as a ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties rather than a cease-fire be­cause it is not in­tended to be a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion. That is the goal of the peace talks, which have as their aim the cre­ation of a tran­si­tional govern­ment that will pave the way for a full end to the hos­til­i­ties and a long-term so­lu­tion.

There was none­the­less wide­spread skep­ti­cism that the calm will last long enough to give real im­pe­tus to the peace talks.

Much time has al­ready been taken out of a process that was in­tended to be­gin in Jan­uary and was ex­pected to last six months. Turk­ish of­fi­cials said Turkey sup­ports the cease-fire and had ex­pressed con­cern that the wran­gling over the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties and the de­liv­ery of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid were de­tract­ing at­ten­tion from the need for a long-term political so­lu­tion.

“The big pic­ture has been lost,” Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, told re­porters in Ankara on Fri­day.

Rebel com­man­ders said they feared that the govern­ment and its Rus­sian al­lies would use the lull to re­group and re­in­force their po­si­tions be­fore re­sum­ing of­fen­sives. The truce cul­mi­nates months of ad­vances by the govern­ment that have seen the rebels lose vi­tal ter­ri­tory around Aleppo and along the Turk­ish bor­der in the north­west­ern prov­ince of Latakia, boost­ing govern­ment con­fi­dence that it can win the war out­right.

“Noth­ing has changed,” said Capt. Ab­dulsalam Ab­dul­raz­zak of the Noured­dine al-Zinki rebel group, speak­ing from a front-line town west of Aleppo. “Rus­sia and the regime con­sider the truce as a mil­i­tary tac­tic, not as a prepara­tory mea­sure for a political so­lu­tion.”

In east­ern Syria, dom­i­nated by the fight against the Is­lamic State, the war con­tin­ued un­in­ter­rupted. In a sur­prise set­back for Kur­dish forces, Is­lamic State fight­ers launched an as­sault against the bor­der town of Tal Abyad, whose cap­ture last sum­mer had been hailed by the U.S. mil­i­tary as a ma­jor suc­cess.

They swarmed through the streets, over­ran a cul­tural cen­ter and be­headed a tribal leader ac­cused of co­op­er­at­ing with the Kurds be­fore U.S. war­planes in­ter­vened to bomb the Is­lamic State’s po­si­tions.

The Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, or YPG, and their lo­cal Arab al­lies grouped un­der the um­brella of the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces claimed at night­fall to have se­cured full con­trol of the town. But the in­ci­dent il­lus­trated the con­tin­ued dan­ger pre­sented by the Is­lamic State even to ar­eas from which it has al­ready been ejected, and no­tably those where mostly Kur­dish forces have taken over mostly Arab towns.

“To­day is so dif­fer­ent. Peo­ple feel safe, and you can feel more life in the streets.” Ameen al-Hal­abi, an ac­tivist liv­ing in a rebel-held neigh­bor­hood in the much-bombed city of Aleppo

 ?? SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES ?? ABOVE: Chil­dren walk past de­stroyed build­ings in Douma, not far from Da­m­as­cus, the cap­i­tal. Both sides of the con­flict ex­changed al­le­ga­tions of vi­o­la­tions, but mostly there was wide­spread re­lief.
SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES ABOVE: Chil­dren walk past de­stroyed build­ings in Douma, not far from Da­m­as­cus, the cap­i­tal. Both sides of the con­flict ex­changed al­le­ga­tions of vi­o­la­tions, but mostly there was wide­spread re­lief.
 ?? LOUAI BE­SHARA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES ?? LEFT: Cus­tomers sit in a cafe in Da­m­as­cus. The truce is be­ing of­fi­cially re­ferred to as a ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties rather than a cease-fire be­cause it is not in­tended to be a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion.
LOUAI BE­SHARA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES LEFT: Cus­tomers sit in a cafe in Da­m­as­cus. The truce is be­ing of­fi­cially re­ferred to as a ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties rather than a cease-fire be­cause it is not in­tended to be a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion.

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