Sunday 22 January 2017

Rebels accuse Assad regime of breaking fragile cessation deal

John Davison and John Irish in Beirut and Geneva

Published 01/03/2016 | 02:30

Civilians fix damaged water pipes in the rebel held al-Ghariyah al-Gharbiyah town, in Deraa province, Syria. Photo: Reuters
Civilians fix damaged water pipes in the rebel held al-Ghariyah al-Gharbiyah town, in Deraa province, Syria. Photo: Reuters

A SENIOR official from Syria's main opposition group has said that a fragile international attempt to halt nearly five years of fighting is in danger of total collapse because of attacks by government forces.

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The cessation of hostilities drawn up by Washington and Moscow faced "complete nullification" because Syrian government attacks were violating the agreement, the official of the Saudi-backed opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said.

France said there were reports of attacks on opposition forces, in breach of the deal, which came into force on Saturday. Countries backing the Syrian peace process met to try to clarify the situation.

However, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the pause in the fighting was largely holding, despite some incidents that he hoped would be contained.

The Kremlin said the cessation process was under way, although it had always been clear that it would not be easy.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the cessation was largely holding, with casualties greatly reduced, compared with before the agreement taking effect.

The cessation of hostilities, the first of its kind since the war began in 2011, is a less formal arrangement than a ceasefire. It is meant to allow peace talks to resume and aid to reach besieged communities.

Assad al-Zoubi, head of the HNC's delegation to the peace talks, gave a gloomy assessment of the truce. "We are not facing a violation of the truce... we are facing a complete nullification," he said on Al Arabiya al Hadath TV.

"I believe the international community has totally failed in all its experiments and must take real, practical measures towards the (Syrian) regime."

He said there were no signs of any preparations for peace talks, which the UN wants to reconvene on March 7.

Talks in Geneva in early February collapsed before they had even started, with rebels saying they could not negotiate while they were being bombed.

A second HNC spokesman, Salim al-Muslat, said the truce was a step in the right direction, but that there was no means of preventing it being violated.

"There has to be a power that really stops what Russia and what the regime is doing," Muslat said in a television interview with Reuters in Riyadh. "Today there were about 10 Russian air strikes, with about 16 air strikes done by the regime."

He said a mechanism was needed to stop such violations and encourage negotiations.

Syrian officials could not immediately be reached for comment on claims that government forces were violating the cessation. The government, whose forces are backed by Russian air power, has said it is abiding by the agreement.

However, a Syrian foreign ministry official accused Saudi Arabia of trying to undermine the cessation of hostilities agreement by saying there would be a 'Plan B' if it failed.

He did not give details of the plan, which is believed to include military action.

Russia has rejected any suggestion of a Plan B, which has been alluded to by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The agreement does not include jihadist groups, such as Isil and the Nusra Front, and Russia has made clear it intends to keep bombing them. But rebels regarded as 'moderate' by the West fear they will also be targeted as they operate in areas where Nusra is also present.

Countries belonging to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), led by the United States and Russia, met in Geneva yesterday. They are supposed to monitor compliance with the deal and act rapidly to end any flare-ups.

"We have received indications that attacks, including by air, have been continuing against zones controlled by the moderate opposition," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in Geneva. "All this needs to be verified."

The HNC said the cessation of hostilities was broken by the Syrian government 15 times on the first day, and that there were further violations by Russia and Hezbollah, both allies of President Bashar al-Assad.

On the ground, rebels said the violence was below pre-ceasefire levels in some places and little changed in others. Colonel Fares al-Bayoush, head of a Free Syrian Army group, told Reuters: "The air strikes are heavy today, especially by Russian planes."

Irish Independent

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