The Impossible Syrian Ceasefire

The internationally brokered ceasefire had a rocky start. While the first 24 hours passed relatively quietly, Russian and Syrian government air strikes picked up again on Sunday, with airplanes targeting towns and villages controlled by the Free Syrian Ar

Walking on the rubble of Aleppo, Syria
Walking on the rubble of Aleppo, Syria
Tamer Osman and Saleem al-Omar

ALEPPO â€" For the first time in nearly five years, Syrians witnessed two days of relative calm, despite skepticism over the involved parties’ commitment to the internationally brokered ceasefire.

The lull in violence came after the United States and Russia signed an agreement for a two-week “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, a temporary truce that excludes the Islamic State group (ISIS) and the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front.

Russian and government airstrikes spiked before the ceasefire officially went into effect. But at midnight on Friday opposition-held areas were spared any major offensives until the late hours of Saturday, when the Russian air force resumed strikes on the southern and western countryside near Aleppo â€" an area largely controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

First 24 hours

The ceasefire was violated a number of times within the first 24 hours. Government and Russian airstrikes targeted opposition-held villages in the countryside of Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia. One air raid on the town of Jisr al-Shughour left a pregnant woman dead and dozens injured.

On Sunday morning, fighter jets hit the towns of Daret Azza and Qabtan al-Jabal in Aleppo’s western countryside, killing one person and causing significant damage.

In one case, a sniper with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) from the Sheikh Maqsood neighborhood took shots at people along the Castello highway, which connects the city with its countryside, resulting in a number of civilian injuries.

In northern Aleppo, fighter jets targeted the towns of Andan and Kfar Hamra. In Aleppo’s southern countryside, government forces shelled the towns of Zerya, Khalidiya and the area of Harsh Khan Touman with heavy artillery, raising the number of ceasefire violations to 16, according to the Syrian Network For Human Rights.

In northern Latakia, a low-flying military helicopter fired at opposition factions in Jabal al-Zawiya, but the attack did not result in any casualties.

Government forces were able to retake the villages of Nawara and Saraf, continuing their efforts to secure the border area between Latakia and Turkey. Airstrikes hit the villages of Jabal al-Tuffaha and Yamadiya, the opposition’s last stronghold in the Turkmen Mountains, reportedly killing Akram Kojak, a military commander in the FSA’s Sultan Murad brigades.

By the end of the day on Sunday, the Syrian Network for Human Rights had documented 49 breaches of the ceasefire over the first two days.

"From the very beginning, we were extremely doubtful about the sincerity of the regime and its allies in regards to the ceasefire,” said Zein al-Rifai, a media activist from Aleppo. “We were always lied to and misled by the government who classifies everyone as a terrorist, even the civilians.”

Zein, like many others, believes that the Syrian government will use the al-Nusra Front as an excuse to continue its attacks on Aleppo’s countryside, where the majority of rebel-held areas are under the FSA’s control.

A chance to breathe

There were no violations in Aleppo city. Abu Mohammad, a resident in the Qaterji neighborhood, was relieved to finally get a break from the five-year conflict, which has destroyed his city and “returned the country 50 years backwards”.

“We have finally lived an entire day without any shelling, I hope this lasts. When the shelling stops, people will stop fleeing to Turkey and Europe, and everyone would return,” he said.

Not only did Syrians fill the streets in opposition-held cities for the first time in years, but internally displaced citizens in Idlib along the border with Turkey were able to build new camps in Khirbet al-Joz and Ain al-Beida.

Abu Muhammad, 29-year-old internally displaced person from Jabal al-Akrad (the Kurd Mountains) in Aleppo, said the sound of his hammering was a welcome interruption of the eerie quiet. It has been years since he and his family have had a day of calm and quiet.

“I’m disturbing my family with the noise from my hammer so they wouldn’t get used to the excessive quiet,” he joked.

The new camp is called al-Akha’a (fraternity), and is now home to more than 200 families who were forced to flee the Latakia countryside.

The man in charge of the camp, 26-year-old Muhammad, told us that they had to take advantage of the ceasefire to help displaced families find loved ones who had fled from Jabal al-Akrad in Latakia.

“We’re trying to make use of any circumstances which allow us to make these women and children feel stable,” he said, highlighting the large number of children who are afraid of any strange noises because of the Russian airstrikes.

Locals in Idlib don’t have much faith in the political process or expect to see an end to the conflict in the near future. Difficulties in monitoring and enforcing the ceasefire abound, and with no mutually agreed map detailing each group's area of control, residents worry the government and its allies will continue to target all rebels under the pretext of firing upon ISIS and al-Nusra.

Muhammad and his colleagues vowed to continue setting up camps for internally displaced people in relatively peaceful areas, while Abu Muhammad said he hoped the truce would last so he wouldn’t have to bother his family with the noise of yet another hammer nailing the stakes of yet another tent.

Abdul Aziz from the U.S.-backed Harakat Nour al-Dein al-Zenki brigades of the Free Syrian Army, sat with his rifle by his side for the first time in months. His only responsibility on Sunday was to monitor the movement of the government forces on the front. Like most of his fellow opposition fighters, however, he was less than hopeful the lull in violence would continue.

“We at the FSA will adhere to the decisions passed on to us from the leadership,” he explained. “But personally, I don’t think the truce will last. We’ve gotten used to foul play from the government.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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