By Tom Perry
Russia bombed Syrian rebel-held areas in north-western Syria on Thursday as government forces sought to take more ground at the Turkish border, ahead of a planned halt to fighting, which rebels predicted Damascus and Moscow would ignore.
The “cessation of hostilities” agreed by the United States and Russia is due to take hold on Saturday morning from midnight. But opponents of President Bashar al-Assad say they expect the government to press on with its advance by branding opposition fighters al Qaeda militants unprotected by the truce.
Damascus has agreed to the deal, as has the main opposition alliance, though it is only ready to commit for two weeks given its deep reservations. But the government and its allies will be permitted to continue strikes against jihadist militants of Islamic State and an al Qaeda-linked group, the Nusra Front.
The government also says the agreement could fail if foreign states supply rebels with weapons or insurgents take advantage of the truce to strengthen their capabilities.
A spokesman for rebels in southern Syria forecast the ‘first breach’ of the agreement in the opposition-held Damascus suburb of Daraya, where the government has said the Nusra Front is operating but which rebels say is held by other groups.
“They want to exploit the ceasefire and focus their fire on Daraya to take it. This will be the first breach. We won’t accept it,” said Abu Ghiath al-Shami, spokesman for the Alwiyat Seif al-Sham group, part of a rebel alliance in the south.
A Syrian military source signalled that Damascus would press on fighting in Daraya despite the truce.
“There is evidence that the ones there are Nusra Front. They found documents, books, flags that point to the Nusra Front being in Daraya,” the military source said. “In any place where there is Nusra Front, we will continue operations.”
Four months of Russian air strikes turned momentum Assad’s way in a 5-year-old war that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and seen Islamic State fighters declare a “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
The multi-sided civil war has drawn in most regional and global powers, with Western countries, Arab states and Turkey forming a coalition against Islamic State while also backing rebels fighting to overthrow Assad. Russia and Iran support him.
Fighting has escalated in the last two days in the northwestern province of Latakia, where Free Syrian Army groups backed by Assad’s foreign enemies operate close to the Nusra Front and other jihadists.
“The regime wants to try to retake all of northern Latakia before Feb 26,” said Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the First Coastal Division rebel group, speaking to Reuters from the area.
“The battles are very fierce. Yesterday, there were heavy battles in the part of rural Latakia that is still with us,” he said, adding he did not expect the government or its Russian allies to abide by the truce: “Three minutes ago I saw a Russian plane in the sky hitting us here in rural Latakia.”
The Syrian military source also said operations were so far continuing in the northern Latakia area ahead of the cessation.
Recapturing areas of Latakia province at the border with Turkey has been a top priority for the Syrian government and its allies since Russia began its air strikes. It is one of several areas where the government has made significant gains this year.
Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict with a network of sources on the ground, confirmed heavy air strikes in northern Latakia on Wednesday and Thursday.
Abdulrahman predicted the presence of the Nusra Front and like-minded Turkistan Islamic Party would give the government grounds to keep up the attack there under the agreement.
One of the main purposes of the cessation of hostilities is to allow vital humanitarian aid to reach civilians, especially in besieged areas cut off from supplies.
A UN air-drop of food to 200,000 people in the besieged city of Deir al-Zor failed on Wednesday, with all 21 palettes dropped by parachute either damaged, landing in no-man’s land or unaccounted for, a UN World Food Programme spokeswoman said.
UN advisor Jan Egeland nevertheless said the cessation of hostilities could rescue the civilian population from “the abyss” and end the “black chapter” of sieges.
Assad told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday his government was ready to help implement the halt to fighting. The two leaders nevertheless stressed the importance of a continued “uncompromising” fight against Islamic State, the Nusra Front and other jihadists who are not party to the truce.
US President Barack Obama on Wednesday said he was cautious about raising expectations about the plan to stop the fighting. He said if some progress were made in Syria, that would lead to a political process to end the war there.
United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said he would announce on Friday a date for a new round of talks between Syria’s warring parties. The last talks were called off this month before they got underway, with rebels saying they could not talk while government troops advanced and Russia bombed.
The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia told Reuters on Wednesday it would abide by the plan to halt the fighting but reserved the right to respond if attacked. The YPG is an important partner in the U.S-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria, but has also been fighting Syrian insurgent groups in northwestern Syria near Aleppo, and is considered an enemy by NATO member Turkey.
Russia responded to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s talk of “Plan B” options if the proposed cessation of hostilities and a political transition does not unfold.
“U.S. statements on the availability of some Plan B give rise to concern. We know nothing about it,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Thursday, the TASS news agency reported.