MESOP Syria Daily: Assad Accepts Cessation of Hostilities But Questions Remain
24 Feb 2016 – By Scott Lucas – eaworldview – After initial hesitation, the Assad regime has accepted the US-Russian plan for a cessation of hostilities to begin on Saturday across Syria.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday afternoon that the halt to fighting would be respected “on the basis of continuing the military efforts for combating terrorism against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations”. The opposition-rebel bloc had “provisionally” accepted the cessation on Monday, but Damascus was silent, prompting signals by its Russian ally that it should comply.
However, the regime’s formula of “other terrorist organizations”, first used by Moscow, leaves open the possibility of attacks on some rebel factions. Russia has called for leading groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam to be labelled as “terrorist”.
The opposition-rebel High Negotiations Committee has also raised concern that the pretext of striking the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra, who hold positions throughout opposition-held territory, could be used for continuing Russian and regime bombing of all areas.
The statement from an “official source” also said the Syrian military would retaliate against “any violation committed by these groups”.
CAUTION FROM US, DOUBTS FROM TURKEY
Despite the regime’s declaration, US Secretary of State John Kerry was cautious. “The proof will be in the actions that come in the next days,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry said the next month or two would show if parties were serious about the process. He asserted that President Assad would have to make “some real decisions about the formation of a transitional governance process that’s real”.
Challenged over the possibilities of cessation, Kerry warned, “It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer,” although he said — without further explanation — “There is a significant discussion taking place now about Plan B if we don’t succeed at the table.”
Kerry’s statement brought concern from his partners in Moscow. “The Russian side is not aware of any ‘plan B’ that US is talking about. Intensive work on the statement was carried out, and it is necessary to hurl all effort into its practical implementation,” an unnamed Foreign Ministry official said.
Turkey, a leading backer of the opposition and rebels, expressed doubt that the halt to fighting would be established.
“I welcome this truce, but I am not very optimistic that it will be respected by all the parties,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told reporters in Ankara on Tuesday.
“We hope that no one will try and carry out air strikes and that no one is going to kill civilians during the ceasefire.” he added.
Ankara tried to shift attention to another dimension of the crisis, the ascendancy of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia YPG in northern Syria. In the past month, the YPG and its allies have launched attacks on rebels, seizing parts of northern Aleppo Province near the Turkish border.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a speech in Istanbul, “The chaos in Syria has provided an environment for terrorist organizations like Daesh [the Islamic State], al-Nusra, the PYD, and the YPG to grow and disperse.”
Ankara considered the PYD and YPG to be led by the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK, which has waged an armed campaign for more than 30 years.
Erdoğan said in a speech at the Turkey-Somalia Business Forum in Istanbul on Feb. 23, using the Arabic acronym “Daesh” for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“As Turkey, we have been struggling with a separatist terror organization for 30 years. In our view there is no difference between terrorist organizations. We do not discriminate between al-Shabab, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] and al-Nusra, or between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK], the Democratic Union Party [PYD] and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units [YPG],” he added.
Deputy Prime Minister Kurtulmus echoed, “Turkey will defend its territorial integrity. That is clear.”
The British Government also showed public doubts about the Kurdish groups on Tuesday. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told a Parliamentary committee, “What we have seen over the last weeks is very disturbing evidence of coordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and the Russian air force which are making us distinctly uneasy about the Kurds’ role in all of this.” www.mesop.de