ALEPPO, Syria – 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 cease-fire.
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 cease-fire 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 its airstrikes on the southern and western countryside of Aleppo – an area largely controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Syrian Government Violations
The cease-fire 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 cease-fire 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 retake 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 cease-fire 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 cease-fire,” 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.
Breathing Room for Civilians
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 cease-fire 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 cease-fire 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.”
Top image: At last, a cease-fire. A Syrian boy plays between destroyed buildings in the old city of Homs, Syria, on Friday, February 26, 2016. But many locals are doubtful the lull in fighting will continue. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)