GAZIANTEP, TURKEY// With a ceasefire mostly holding for three weeks, a surprise partial withdrawal of Russian forces and Syrian government and opposition representatives gathered in Geneva for negotiations, there is an optimism largely absent for the past five years that Syria might finally be on the path to peace.
But among Syrian rebel leaders, there are deep misgivings about these latest developments.
In a series of wide-ranging interviews with representatives spanning the spectrum of rebel factions, the leaders laid out their concerns and cautious optimism over Russia’s withdrawal, qualms about the longevity of the ceasefire, and deep doubt that the regime is ready or willing to negotiate.
Russia’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria “surprised us, surprised the regime and surprised all the world,” said a commander for the hardline Salafi group Ahrar Al Sham in north-western Syria who identified himself as Abu Zeid. “We don’t trust Russia’s official statements. But until now, there is no Russian bombing. But we can’t judge them now.”
“We are waiting to see the reality of this retreat in Syria. Maybe it’s just media propaganda. But we hope it’s a serious retreat to support the Geneva negotiations,” said Colonel Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, the former head of the Aleppo military revolutionary council. “In principle, we welcome this step and we welcome a change in Russia’s position.”
While Syrian rebels voiced doubt that the withdrawal was real and that Russia would stop bombing rebel units, they agreed that if the air strikes had indeed come to an end, it would offer a dramatic shift in fortune for the opposition when and if the truce collapsed.
“The regime forces could not have advanced in the liberated areas without Russian air strikes,” said Hajj Bakri, a Free Syrian Army leader in Hama. “Russia was making a scorched-earth policy: it was destroying everything in front of the regime’s forces so they could advance.”
Russia’s military intervention, which began on September 30, paved the way for regime gains across the country. Backed by heavy Russian air strikes, a major offensive by government forces made lightning gains around Aleppo in early February, cutting off the main supply line between the rebel-held area of Syria’s largest city and Turkey. The rebels were facing imminent siege when the February 27 temporary ceasefire halted the government’s offensive.
If Russia does not start bombing the area when fighting resumes, rebels are confident that they can retake areas near Aleppo that government forces and the Kurdish YPG militia captured from them.
“When Iran and militias like Hizbollah intervened to support the regime, it was not enough to make the regime advance. But after Russia’s air strikes, the regime advanced and the YPG advanced as well,” said Zakaria Malahefji, a political officer for Fastaqim Kama Umirt, a coalition of rebel groups in Aleppo city. “Now we are in a ceasefire so we cannot make new battles. But if there is no ceasefire and we can enter into new battles, the regime will retreat more than before because there are no air strikes.”
While the international community has seen Syria’s truce as mostly holding, many rebels claim the regime has not observed the ceasefire, despite a noticeable lessening of violence in recent weeks.
“In reality, the ceasefire lasted for one day,” said Mr Malahefji. “After the ceasefire was declared, the shelling was reduced, but it did not stop.”
Jaish Al Islam, a powerful Salafi faction with positions in Damascus suburbs and a number of other fronts in the country, said the regime has not eased its attacks on its areas and believes the truce to be a trick whereby the regime can shift the focus of its fronts.
“We believe the reason the regime had agreed to the truce is to freeze some fronts so it can advance in the countryside of Damascus, especially in the eastern Ghouta and Daraya,” said Captain Islam Alloush, Jaish Al Islam’s spokesman. “On the ground, nothing has changed as far as we are concerned.”
Rebel factions claim to be unilaterally upholding the ceasefire, despite government and Russian claims of ceasefire violations by the opposition. But rebels say their restraint can only last so long before the ceasefire falls apart.
“This ceasefire is supposed to be a response to the Syrian people’s demands. But not one of the Syrian people’s demands has been granted and the regime continues killing, so I expect this ceasefire will collapse soon,” Colonel Riad Al Assad, the founder of the Free Syrian Army and its former leader, told The National.
“We don’t think the regime is serious about finding a solution or stopping the killing,” said Col Akaidi. However, he added that the current ceasefire gave “flexibility for negotiations” that were absent in the past.
Others display cautious optimism.
“The situation is not known yet, but in general it looks better than past negotiations,” said Mr Malahefji. “In the last Geneva negotiations, Russia on the first day began a genocide-like campaign … Now, even though this retreat is just propaganda, it means positive things.”
But many in the rebel ranks see the negotiations as a useless endeavour and waste of time.
“Our knowledge of the regime and its criminal mentality, in addition to the failure of the international community to take a serious decision to stop the bloodshed in Syria, forces us to say that we are not optimistic about the success of these talks,” said Capt Alloush. “In fact, the regime only believes in military solutions and nothing else, especially when its allies offer it unlimited support.”
Former Free Syrian Army leader Col Assad was more direct: “We don’t have any hope for the Geneva negotiations.”