The Washington Post Sunday

In Syria, the truce begins to take hold

SCATTERED SKIRMISHES BUT MOSTLY SILENCE

- BY LIZ SLY AND ZAKARIA ZAKARIA

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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