Beirut: Despite a pervading sense of scepticism, the Syria truce agreement has held for 24 hours after it was imposed on all players in the war by US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
No deaths were reported from February 27 to 28, which is a major breakthrough after five years of war and a daily death toll of anywhere between 30 to 100.
As it is, the truce remains shaky and legally non-binding, and it excludes powerful players like Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaida branch in Syria, and Daesh.
The US-Russian-brokered “cessation of hostilities” in the Syrian battlefield has survived its first day rather impressively.
Despite a few breaches on the front lines, no major fighting has occurred so far and, for the first time in five years, no military jets have taken to the skies of Syria. In the few recorded skirmishes, only light arms were used — no cannon fire, long-range missiles, or barrel bombs.
Cautious optimism is in the air and hotlines have been set up asking government troops, rebels, activists and citizen journalists to report any major violations to a monitoring station set up by the Syria Task Force. A similar office has been set up by the Russians at Latakia airport on the Syrian coast, while the Americans are establishing one in Jordan, near the border with Syria. Seventy surveillance planes from the US and Russian Air Force are monitoring the truce, especially around the capital Damascus and Aleppo in the Syrian north.
So far the Syrian ceasefire has been respected by the Syrian and Russian armies, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Jaysh Al Islam and Ahrar Al Sham. Hezbollah and Iran have been remarkably silent about the deal, refusing to criticise or endorse it. In total, 97 armed groups, mostly Islamist outfits, have abided by the truce — for now — and signed their support on paper.
As expected, the two major groups excluded from the truce, Jabhat Al Nusra and Daesh, continued to fire at their enemies throughout the weekend.
On Saturday, fierce battles were recorded between Daesh and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces near the border with Turkey.
Meanwhile Jabhat Al Nusra retreated from some villages in the countryside of Idlib in northwestern Syria, firing at advancing Syrian government troops. There is no real agreement yet on what exactly constitutes Jabhat Al Nusra territory, unlike Daesh, which has been clearly marked by the terrorist group itself and all stakeholders in the Syria war. It includes Al Raqqa on the Euphrates River, the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert, pockets of the Aleppo countryside, half of oil-rich Deir Al Zor, and Albukamal in eastern Syria. It stretches all the way to Menbij, 30 kilometres west of the Euphrates, and Al Bab northeast of Aleppo.
All of these cities and towns are excluded from the truce because of Daesh. With Jabhat Al Nusra, the situation is far more complex, with Moscow dismissing many rebel groups as Jabhat Al Nusra-friendly or potential supporters of Jabhat Al Nusra. This is a very loose interpretation of terrorism that enables Russian airplanes to strike at practically everyone and everything they claim is either an official member of Al Nusra or an implicit sympathiser with the Al Qaida branch in Syria.
The charge can be tailor-made to fit any rebel group Russian wants to wipe off the battlefield. Jabhat Al Nusra made the job far easier hours before the truce was implemented, via its founder Abu Mohammad Al Golani, trashing the ceasefire and its architects, saying that it was a ploy to keep the Syrian regime in power.
He pledged to dismiss it and fight until curtain fall.
In response the Russian Defence Ministry released a map outlining which parts its warplanes would exclude from the truce, which included the entire city of Idlib and its countryside, run mainly by Jabhat Al Nusra. The agricultural city, located 59-km south west of Aleppo, fell to Syrian rebels one year ago.
The map of the Russian Defence Ministry specifies what parts of Syria it will not attack, which includes the countryside of Damascus and pro-regime cities like Homs, Hama, Tartous, Latakia, in addition of course, to the capital itself. These parts of central and coastal Syria, identified by some as the Syrian Green Zone, amount to approximately 16 per cent of Syrian territory.
Since their military campaign started last September, the Russians have managed to defeat and expel Syrian rebels from the mountains surrounding Latakia and the countryside of Homs. Rebels remain present in the vicinity of Damascus, however, but under total siege by government forces — reducing them practically to a non-threat. Two major rebel held towns in the Damascus countryside, Arbeen and Douma, have signed off the truce while only one, Daraya — has been excluded, not by its military command but by the Russians.
All three towns, Arbeen Douma, and Daraya, a stone’s throw from the Syrian capital, are run by Jaysh Al Islam, whose commander, Zahran Alloush, was killed by a Syrian airstrike last December. Other exceptions to the truce are the governorate of Al Quneitra in southwestern Syria, facing the border with Israel, and the Al Nusra-held southern countryside of Aleppo.
Notably, the truce stands in Daraa near the border with Jordan and the southern countryside of Homs and Hama, both manned by the western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has backed the Russian-US agreement.
By virtue of lasting into its second day, the truce makes history as the first 48-hours of relative calm since hostilities broke out five years ago. The last attempt at striking such a deal was in October 2012, via UN special mediator Kofi Anan. It collapsed within hours.
The current Syrian ceasefire, however, has been endorsed by UNSCR 2268 just two hours before going into effect, thanks to heavy pressure at the UN by Russian and American diplomats, who gave member states less than 24 hours to read the resolution draft, insisting that it be passed on with no amendments. The resolution passed unanimously, reemphasizing what was agreed upon by all Syria stakeholders in Vienna last October, calling for a de-escalation of violence and direct talks between the Syrian government and its opponents.
The Russian mission to the UN crossed off the name of the Saudi-backed Syrian Opposition Higher Negotiations Committee, a product of the Riyadh Conference. Meaning, according to UNSCR 2268, Saudi-backed Syrian opposition figures alone are not the sole legitimate representatives of the anti-regime camp. This opens the door far and wide for the Russians to usher Moscow-backed figures into the opposition delegation, ahead of a new round of talks that is expected to start in Switzerland on March 7, 2016. Unlike the previous negotiations, which barely lasted for a few hours only, these talks will carry on for three weeks, according to the UN mediator, Staffan de Mistura.