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Syrian ceasefire breathing space promises little relief for rebels

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Syrian ceasefire breathing space promises little relief for rebels

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Aleppo shook to falling bombs right up to the very last minute before the ceasefire. Its durability will surely be played out here, Syria’s second city, cut in half, where the stakes for both rebels and government could not be higher.

On television Bashar al-Assad could not have been clearer.

“When we come to this area we give a message that the Syrian state is determined to recover every area from terrorists”

The Syrian president’s ambitions are clear, but what about his targets? Who exactly are the terrorists for Damascus and their Moscow allies? Are they the same terrorists the US is gunning for? Their only common and identified enemy is ISIL, but what about the rebels in all their diverse factions?

More ambiguity was supplied with a statement from the Russian general in operational command.

“Despite the truce, we will continue the fight against terrorist groups like ISIS, (Islamic State group), and Jabhat al-Nusra, (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham group), operating in Syrian territory. No matter what the terrorists call themselves Russian air forces will continue bombing their positions,” said General Sergei Rudskoy.

“Whatever they call themselves” sounds dismissive, but the names remain important. On Russia’s list of terrorist organisations in Syria there are of course ISIL and the local al-Qaeda affiliates, but also a host of Islamist factions fighting on the rebels’ side.

The rebels, as part of the ceasefire deal, will now have to step away from their Islamist allies, or the Russians say they will be targets.

This appears to be a hopeless scenario on the ground, where the Islamist factions and Syrian Free Army rebels are mixed together under joint commands.

Rebel forces hold half of Aleppo with the help of the Islamists, but ending the alliance could see them lose the city to the Syrian army, and neither group can afford for that to happen.

Several Islamist factions, notably the powerful Ahrar al-Sham who are well dug in in Aleppo and Idlib, have already criticised the ceasefire. They all agree it only serves the regime’s interests, and that the regime is only determined to crush the rebellion.

President Assad on Monday was filmed just hours before the ceasefire symbolically walking through the Damascus suburb of Daraya, recaptured last month after years in rebel hands.

Militarily he may be on the verge of winning his war. But the country has been wrecked in the process.

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