After a US-Russia brokered ceasefire, a boy carries a placard during a demonstration against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and calling for aid to reach Aleppo near Castello road in Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 14.

After a US-Russia brokered ceasefire, a boy carries a placard during a demonstration against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and calling for aid to reach Aleppo near Castello road in Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 14.

Credit:

Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

No one held out much hope for the ceasefire in Syria brokered by the United States and Russia.

The truce, which is supposed to pave the way for peace talks between warring sides in Syria, has given civilians a brief respite from the fighting. It's even allowed children to play in the battle-scarred streets of Aleppo.

Russia and the US are accusing each other of ceasefire violations. But even a relative calm is progress. The war has raged for over five years, forcing more than 11 million Syrians out of their homes and killing 430,000 people, by one estimate.

But there are problems ahead. Many Syrians are skeptical of the deal, and some say the agreement's central tenet — the very thing that its success depends on — is likely to be its downfall.

So what's in the deal?

In the short term, all sides stop fighting and allow the establishment of a humanitarian corridor into eastern Aleppo, which is currently besieged by government forces.

Following a period of calm, the US and Russia would work together to target extremist groups like ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. That latter group only recently cut ties with its founder, al-Qaeda, and changed its name from Jabhat al-Nusra.

In return for US cooperation and intelligence sharing, Russia is required to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into grounding his air force in agreed upon areas — mostly where more so-called moderate opposition groups are operating.

The US hopes that taking Assad’s planes out of the sky will reduce civilian casualties, and that building trust with Russia will lay the groundwork for resuming peace talks.

Here’s the problem: The deal says opposition groups have to separate from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, so that the US and Russia can bomb the extremists. Separating from them will also raise the chances for a negotiated settlement, or so the thinking goes.

But for many anti-Assad Syrians, the idea that they should distance themselves from a powerful group that's fighting the Syrian government is unthinkable. In eastern Aleppo, it's Assad’s forces who are dropping barrel bombs and killing civilians, they say. 

“How can people distance themselves from a group that fights both Assad and ISIS?” said Wissam Zarqa, a teacher living in eastern Aleppo. “This demand can’t be achieved.”

Zarqa’s view is expressed frequently by other civilians in eastern Aleppo, which has borne the brunt of a merciless aerial bombing campaign by Syrian and Russian jets.

It is also a view shared by fighters on the ground that the US supports.

There's a term often used to describe the relationship between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the rest of the armed opposition to Assad: "marbling" — in other words, they are separate, but inextricably linked.

Before its recent rebrand and name change to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, meaning Levant Conquest Front, it was directed by al-Qaeda’s leadership. The front claimed to cut ties with them in late July, but it has shown no signs of rejecting al-Qaeda ideology. Its fighters were instrumental in breaking the siege of eastern Aleppo some weeks ago, before it was re-established by Syrian government and Russian forces.

A representative of a group in the Free Syrian Army — a loose coalition of rebel forces claiming to be on the more moderate end of the spectrum — said his group and others fighting around Aleppo rejected the US plan.

“The FSA refuses strikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham while Hezbollah and other sectarian groups supporting Assad’s regime are being left alone,” said Yassin Abo Raed, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Forces of Syria. Hezbollah is a Lebanese militant group fighting alongside Assad's forces.

He said the Free Syrian Army doesn't cooperate with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, but does not treat it as an enemy.

“Fighting [Jabhat] and leaving Assad supporters alone will increase the regime’s power and weaken the revolutionary forces,” he added. 

While rebel groups have displayed incredulity at being asked to attack allies, Secretary of State John Kerry insists that US backing depends on it. 

“We are not going to support people who are fighting alongside al-Qaida. Period. ... I think they will make common-sense decisions,” he told NPR, just days after the anniversary of 9/11.

The success of the ceasefire depends on reconciling two insurmountable positions: To the US, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is part of a murderous terrorist group that killed thousands of Americans. To many Syrians, it’s a little more complicated. Many of them see its breakaway from al-Qaeda as genuine. Even some Syrians who are repulsed by the group's ideology see it as a defender against a regime that's killed tens of thousands of Syrians. To them, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham means survival.

There are other spoilers for this deal. Assad’s forces have so far refused entry to United Nations aid trucks trying to reach eastern Aleppo — which was a condition of the agreement. And even if they do reach the city, some residents are threatening not to accept the aid under the current conditions because of what they see as collusion between the UN, the US and Assad’s government.

“Lavrov and Kerry are partners in besieging Aleppo,” read one sign at a protest on Wednesday, referring to Kerry's Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. “Aleppo people refuse humiliating aid,” read another. And another, "USA with Asad." Some protesters expressed support for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. 

Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, an anti-government activist in eastern Aleppo, tried to explain people's reluctance to accept aid with a poem by a pre-Islamic poet named Antara Ibn Shaddad, born in 525 AD.

“Don’t give me the water of life with indignity

But with dignity let me drink a cup of vine of sodom.

The water of life with indignity is hellfire

And hell with dignity is the best (for us) habitation.”

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