Hassan Hassan reports: Syrian Islamist rebels linked to al-Qaida have struck a wide-ranging ceasefire deal with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. If it holds, the agreement will in effect cede sovereignty of the city of Idlib, create a de facto no-fly zone, and freeze the conflict in several hotspots.
The 25-point deal was brokered by Iran, acting for Damascus, and by Turkey, representing the rebel coalition Jaish al-Fateh, which includes the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. The deal, which urges UN monitoring and implementation, covers 14 towns in the north and south of the country, where intense fighting along sectarian lines had devastated the ranks of all those fighting, taken a bloody toll on civilians left in the area and ravaged towns and infrastructure.
The accord may not hold, especially now that Russia is scouting targets in the ceasefire zone and after reports that renewed clashes erupted between the two sides when pro-regime forces fired into Taftanaz, a town north of Idlib specified in the deal. But the deal itself and the circumstances that led to it are worth pondering.
If it holds it will be a remarkable development in the Syrian conflict. Rebels are claiming the deal as a strategic triumph at a time when Russia is sending extra forces to help prop up Assad’s regime, and western voices that once called for the president’s ousting are apparently softening. It also follows a three-month offensive by pro-Assad Hezbollah forces to clear Al-Zabadani, a southern city near the Lebanese border. It suggests that, even as the tide of foreign opinion is turning towards him, Assad is so hard-pushed he is willing to accept unpalatable realities on the ground in return for military breathing space.
Sources from Jabhat al-Nusra said terms were seen as favourable to Jaish al-Fateh. The jihadi coalition’s chief cleric, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, also heralded the deal as a historic victory for the anti-Assad forces.
Most important, the agreement prohibits the regime from flying helicopters or planes in certain areas controlled by Jaish al-Fateh in Idlib, even to drop aid and ammunition to fighters on the ground. That deprives Damascus of the air power that has been perhaps its biggest advantage over rebel forces, sowing both death and fear around the country. [Continue reading…]