US, Russia announce Syria truce; rebels see flaws in plan

(From agencies)

A landmark truce is to take effect in Syria on Saturday, the United States and Russia announced, but the “cessation of hostilities” does not include the Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front, the main jihadist factions.

Syrian volunteers take part in paramilitary training conducted by the Syrian army in al-Qtaifeh

A Syrian volunteer takes part in paramilitary training conducted by the Syrian army in al-Qtaifeh

The leading opposition group in the five-year conflict gave its conditional acceptance to Monday’s announcement, but Israel said it was skeptical the deal would hold, and analysts warned any pause in the fighting would be dependent on Russia, Iran and President Bashar al-Assad.

The announcement came a day after the deadliest jihadist attack in Syria’s brutal civil war, with 134 people — mostly civilians — killed in a series of blasts near Damascus.

In a joint statement, Washington and Moscow said the partial truce would begin at midnight Damascus time (2200 GMT Friday), suspending a vicious conflict that has left more than 260,000 people dead and seen half the population displaced.

“If implemented and adhered to, this cessation will not only lead to a decline in violence, but also continue to expand the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian supplies to besieged areas and support a political transition to a government that is responsive to the desires of the Syrian people,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said.

US President Barack Obama and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin discussed the deal by phone, the White House said.

“This is a moment of opportunity and we are hopeful that all the parties will capitalise on it,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

Putin said Moscow would do “whatever is necessary” to ensure Damascus respects the agreement.

“We are counting on the United States to do the same with its allies and the groups that it supports,” he said.

Doubts remain

Bashar al-Zoubi, head of the political office of the Yarmouk Army, part of the rebel Free Syrian Army, said the truce plan would provide cover for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies to keep attacking opposition-held territory where rebel and militant factions are tightly packed.

“Russia and the regime will target the areas of the revolutionaries on the pretext of the Nusra Front’s presence, and you know how mixed those areas are, and if this happens, the truce will collapse,” he said.

A U.S.-Russian statement said the two countries and others would work together to delineate the territory held by Islamic State, Nusra Front and the other militant groups excluded from the truce.

But rebel officials said it was impossible to pinpoint positions held by Nusra.

“For us, al-Nusra is a problematic point, because al-Nusra is not only present in Idlib, but also in Aleppo, in Damascus and in the south. The critical issue here is that civilians or the Free Syrian Army could be targeted under the pretext of targeting al-Nusra,” said a senior opposition figure, Khaled Khoja.

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