Monday, July 24, 2017

CAIRO — Diaa Sroor recently watched as Russian troops move to the outskirts of his hometown of Daraa in southwest Syria, supposedly to act as observers under a cease-fire agreement recently struck between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their much-anticipated Group of 20 meeting in Germany this month.

The Syrian acknowledged in an interview to having mixed feeling about the deal from the start.

“The airstrikes have stopped,” said Dr. Sroor, 35, a medical doctor, “but the regime artillery units are still active outside the de-escalation zone.”

Daraa is the fourth and most recent area of Syria covered by “de-escalation agreements” — a series of cease-fire arrangements brokered since May by the U.S., Syria’s Sunni Muslim neighbors Jordan and Turkey, Iran’s Shiite Islamic Republic, Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian backers. Mr. Trump has repeatedly pointed to the cease-fire accord he and Mr. Putin reached in their lengthy G-20 meeting, in part to bolster his argument that engaging with Moscow can deliver real-world results despite the deep doubts of the Washington foreign policy establishment.

The agreements have been embraced by officials in Amman and Ankara grappling with refugees and violence spilling over from the 6-year-old Syrian civil war.

But Syria’s anti-Assad rebels and their supporters are disappointed by the patchwork nature of truce agreements and fear they could allow Mr. Assad to further reclaim the approximately 15 percent of Syrian territory held by the opposition after six years of brutal civil war. Mr. Assad and his key backers, Iran and Russia, stand to be the big winners from the truce, they fear.

“We agreed to do this because we want to improve the humanitarian situation,” said Maj. Issam al-Reis, Southern Front spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a major rebel force. “But it worries us that it’s not for all areas in Syria.”

The opposition’s concerns have only heightened with reports late last week that Mr. Trump is ending a troubled covert program begun under President Obama of support for armed rebel groups fighting Mr. Assad, a move long sought by Mr. Assad and Mr. Putin.

For those on the ground in Syria, the stability of the cease-fire is more than an exercise in international geopolitics. Lives are at stake, and fears are rising that Mr. Assad and his allies, especially Iran, will use the respite to cement and extend their control.

Dr. Sroor admitted that Daraa residents face health risks ranging from poor sanitation to shortages of food and medical supplies, but he said “people in rebel-held areas have a greater level of freedom, and we owe that to [the] bloodshed of our sons.”

About 70 percent of Syrians are Sunni. Mr. Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, and his political base includes Syria’s Shiites. Dr. Sroor said he and his neighbors fear that the cease-fire will give Iran-backed Shiite militias and the Russians more time to bolster Mr. Assad’s positions.

“People here see the cease-fire as a strategic tactic for Assad’s forces to have a rest and rebuild their fronts to re-attack the city later,” said Dr. Sroor, particularly given Russian support for Mr. Assad even as Mr. Trump pulls back.

“If the Russians and regime continue to attack in all the other regions, these agreements will be in danger,” said Maj. al-Reis.

For nearly six years, the Jordanian military has allowed Maj. al-Reis and other Free Syria Army officers to run an operations center in the kingdom.

But since 2015 Jordan’s focus has been turned from undermining Mr. Assad to fighting the Islamic State, a trend that accelerated since the jihadis savagely burned alive Muath Safi Yousef Al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot whose F-16 fighter aircraft crashed over Raqqa, then the Syrian stronghold of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

“King Abdullah personally started flying missions against Islamic State after they killed Al-Kasasbeh,” said Shehab Al Makahleh, the Jordanian founder of international security consultancy Geostrategic Media. “Abdullah saw the scourge of Islamic terrorism under the black banner of the Islamic State as a greater danger than the Damascus regime.”

U.S.-Russian deal

U.S. and Russian negotiators secured a de-escalation pact in Syria’s Quenitra province in Jordan at the same time they agreed on Daraa.

Quneitra province borders the Golan Heights — territory Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War. Neither Jordan nor Israel wanted violence to escalate in those regions, especially in case the Islamic State got involved in the fighting as Mr. Assad’s fortunes have improved in the past year.

“The emergence of terrorists within the armed opposition groups became a threat,” said Jordanian retired Gen. Jamal Madain, an analyst at NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions in Amman. “Now we want to avoid any military confrontation in southern Syria that would lead to additional refugees or the growth of terrorist groups.”

The Jordanian-brokered de-escalation zone in southern Syria follows a May arrangement for the northwestern province of Idlib, where Turkey has backed a deal with Iran and the Russians aimed at constricting both the Islamic State and Kurdish separatists, whom Ankara has accused of seeking to establish an independent country carved in part out of Turkish territory.

“Without a political settlement, Ankara will find itself facing increasingly disgruntled military groups that have the capacity to go deep into Turkey,” said Ammar Khaff, executive director at Istanbul-based Syrian think tank Omran Dirasat. “The de-escalation zones are a way to better position Turkey politically.”

Many rebel factions, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group formerly affiliated with al Qaeda, are based in Idlib. Infighting between those groups resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen militants on July 19, according to Sunni opposition sources.

Still, an Omran Dirasat analysis of the de-escalation process published last week estimated that since March, there has been an 88 percent reduction in military operations in Idlib province, suggesting de-escalation is bearing fruit.

The Idlib figure contrasts starkly with a 45 percent decrease in violence for the east Damascus suburban zone of Ghouta, which is still subjected to shelling and airstrikes. Mr. Assad and Russian officials reached a de-escalation agreement in the area last week.

“Within the last 24 hours, the Russian party of the Russia-Turkey Commission on violations of the joint agreement has registered three cases of firing in the province of Damascus,” said the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman on Sunday.

On Saturday the Russians said they had reached an agreement with the rebels to more clearly draw boundaries in Ghouta and establish delivery routes for humanitarian aid.

“Since the war started, many people were killed just because they were walking in the wrong place at the wrong time, and many bodies still are under the destroyed buildings in Idlib,” said Abd Elrezzak Al-Taweel, a 43-year-old mosaic tile craftsman. “We’re experiencing a kind of peace after this cease-fire, but we’re not comfortable because Assad still is living in his palace, and we’re in this destroyed area.”

Mr. al-Taweel just returned to Idlib in May after spending six years in notorious government-run prisons, including the Adra jail and the detention center at Mazah air force base outside Damascus. Widespread use of torture and “disappearances” of prisoners at both facilities have been widely documented by Syrian and international human rights groups.

“Most of the detainees did nothing to be arrested, but the issue was not addressed in any of the de-escalation talks,” said Mr. al-Taweel.

The failure in any of the cease-fire talks or political negotiations to obtain the release of an estimated 107,000 prisoners in Mr. Assad’s jails has raised objections from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in the Qatari capital of Doha.

The detainees’ plight is just another example of how the cease-fires benefit Mr. Assad, said the network’s chairman, Fadal Abdul Ghany.

“The most recent agreements don’t tackle the detainees issue, which is a fatal flaw,” said Mr. Ghany. “Freedom for these prisoners is just as important as ceasing the bombing and killing or delivering humanitarian aid.”

Asaad Hanna reported from Istanbul.

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