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Syrian Rebels Cast Doubt, HNC Hopes for Civilian Relief after U.S.-Russia Deal | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, take their seats at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Sept. 9, 2016, to discuss the crisis in Syria. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photos via AP)

The High Negotiations Committee, a Syrian opposition umbrella group, on Saturday welcomed a ceasefire deal brokered by Moscow and Washington, but moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels said they saw little chance of the new agreement succeeding because Damascus and Moscow would not abide by it.

The HNC said it hoped the deal reached between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would bring relief to hundreds of thousands of besieged civilians.

“We hope this will be the beginning of the end of the civilians’ ordeal,” HNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani said. “We welcome the deal if it is going to be enforced.”

But Fares al-Bayoush, head of an FSA group called the Northern Division, said Russia and Damascus had not observed the last agreement, and the chances of the new deal succeeding were the same as the last one.

Captain Abdul Salam Abdul Razak, military spokesman for the rebel Nour al-Din al Zinki Brigades, said the deal would only give the Syrian army a chance to gather forces and pour more Iranian-backed militias into the main battles raging in Aleppo.

Kerry and Lavrov said that the truce, reached late on Friday, would come into force on Monday, the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

The two powers back opposite sides of the conflict, with Moscow supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the U.S. behind the coalition of rebel groups it regards as moderate.

But if Russia is able to pressure Assad to respect the ceasefire for a week, Moscow and Washington will set up a joint coordination unit and begin air strikes against agreed “terrorist” targets.

“We will jointly agree on strikes against terrorists to be carried out by the Russian and American air forces. We have agreed on the zones in which these strikes will be carried out,” said Lavrov.

The much anticipated — if tentative — breakthrough came at the end of marathon talks between Lavrov and Kerry in Geneva, as the pair push for an end to the five-year civil war.

“Today, the United States and Russia are announcing a plan which we hope will reduce violence, ease suffering and resume movement towards a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria,” Kerry said.

The vexed question of Assad’s fate remains, with Western powers calling for his removal and Russia backing him.

But both Kerry and Lavrov said the complex plan represents the best available chance to end the fighting between the regime and the mainstream opposition rebels, while still targeting jihadists.

Key to the deal is the withdrawal of Syrian regime forces around rebel-held Aleppo, allowing desperately needed humanitarian access to besieged communities.

Russia also needs to persuade the Syrian air force to stop strikes on anti-regime positions, which have killed large numbers of civilians.

In turn, Washington has to get the opposition groups it backs to separate themselves from the former Al-Nusra Front, now called Fateh al-Sham Front, which has allied itself with a range of rebels at different points in the fluid conflict.