Syria: Temporary ceasefire begins amid skepticism


SYRIA — The sun set in western Syria on Monday, marking the start of a ceasefire that could halt the carnage in the war-torn country.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the deal would stop the Syrian air force from attacking opposition targets. The ceasefire, brokered by the United States and Russia, will also allow for much-needed humanitarian access to besieged cities such as Aleppo.

But just hours before the ceasefire was set to begin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a defiant message to the country’s opposition forces, vowing “to retake every piece of land from the terrorists.”

“We have come here to give the message that the Syrian nation is determined to retake every piece of land from the terrorists, and to re-establish safety and security, to reconstruct and rebuild infrastructure and rebuild everything that has been destroyed,” he said in footage broadcast by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.

“I think this message needs to directed … to those who bet against Syria in the first days, weeks and months of the crisis and until today,” he said.

He said the message was especially targeted at those who have “supported the terrorists.”

Assad’s family has ruled Syria for 45 years. He has often referred to opposition members seeking his ouster as “terrorists.”

Cities in ruins

Assad made his remarks during a symbolic visit to the former rebel stronghold of Daraya, a now-devastated Damascus suburb.

Daraya was under siege by the regime for years until an evacuation deal weeks ago that allowed thousands of civilians and hundreds of rebel militants to leave the city, marking a major victory for Assad.

In June, activists said the Syrian regime pounded the area with barrel bombs just hours after food aid was delivered to the besieged suburb for the first time in nearly four years.

And the fears also permeate Aleppo, Syria’s once-bustling cultural and economic center that has been largely reduced to rubble.

An activist from the Aleppo Media Center — an opposition-affiliated activist group — told CNN that he read Assad’s presence in a formerly opposition-held area as a sign to “that this could be our fate someday.”

Dire needs

The ceasefire gives an opportunity to provide much-needed humanitarian relief for hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

“We are ready to get assistance into Aleppo right away,” said Dominic Graham, Syria Response Director for international aid agency Mercy Corps.

“We have food rations packed and ready to go, but we must be certain the ceasefire is holding with all parties before sending people and trucks into harm’s way.”

Given the failures of the past, some Syrian groups say they are hesitant to embrace the truce agreement — that they are wary of any deal that doesn’t cover all besieged areas of the country.

The US and Russia previously coordinated a partial ceasefire back in February. But human rights groups monitoring the situation reported several airstrikes in the Aleppo region and near Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, just days after the truce took effect.

Nervous hopes for ceasefire

War-weary Syrians will be anxiously watching to see if the fighting will stop for a full 48 hours, in line with the hard-fought ceasefire brokered Friday by the US and Russia.

If the accord holds for seven days, Russia and the US will start discussing military options for targeting ISIS and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, previously known as the al Nusra Front.

Those two terror groups are not covered by the agreement, and military operations against them will continue throughout the ceasefire.

Syria’s civil war, which started five years ago between the regime and rebels seeking Assad’s ouster, has been greatly complicated by terror groups taking advantage of Syria’s instability.

Pessimism over ceasefire prospects

Just hours before the ceasefire, airstrikes continued to bombard opposition targets.

At least seven people, including three children, were killed in rebel-held eastern Aleppo Monday, according to UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

The latest assault followed the deaths of 93 people in airstrikes in Aleppo and Idlib over the weekend — 61 of them in an attack on a popular market where residents were shopping ahead of the Eid al-Adha holiday.

Upticks in violence also have occurred before previous attempts to impose truces in the conflict.

“We are not optimistic about this ceasefire,” an activist for the Aleppo Media Center told CNN as explosions rang out in the background.

“What the Assad regime is doing is dragging the opposition and (opposition) Free Syrian Army to break the ceasefire later today. The Free Syrian Army already have a negative attitude towards this ceasefire.”

‘What’s the guarantee?’

The Syrian civil war has killed more than 300,000 people and forced more 5 million to flee the country, spawning an international migrant crisis.

But many activists and Syrians, especially those living in rebel-held areas, aren’t sure how long any break in violence would last.

“It’s in the general interest of the Syrian people to stop the rivers of blood, and stopping bloodshed is the first step,” said one Syrian in Aleppo. “It’s a good step, but what’s the guarantee that it will remain in place?”