Russia is exploiting a 'gaping loophole' in Syria's peace plan to continue its bombing campaign
A cessation of hostilities agreement in Syria, brokered by the US and Russia, officially came into effect last Saturday.
Though violence has not stopped, it has "plummeted," according to AFP's Beirut correspondent Maya Gebeily. The number of airstrikes has also reportedly dropped from around 100 to about six to eight per day, Reuters reported, citing a Western diplomat.
Russia, which launched a bombing campaign on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back in September, said it would halt airstrikes for 24 hours. It was meant to ensure that no groups included in the agreement — which applies to most moderate, anti-Assad rebel factions — were accidentally targeted.
But opposition activists in rebel-held areas say Russia is still bombing them, despite Moscow's claim that it would only target areas controlled by Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State — jihadist groups excluded from the peace plan and considered fair game for airstrikes.
The New York Times' Moscow correspondent Neil MacFarquhar noted last week that the exclusion of ISIS and Al-Nusra is a "gaping loophole" that Russia will likely exploit to continue bombing rebel-held areas under the pretense of attacking terrorists — just as it has been since intervening in late September.
And Syria expert Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis blog, noted on Monday that "the devil is, as always, in the details."
"Islamic State territory is fairly well delineated, as the group is at war with everyone else in Syria, but the Nusra Front will be a harder nut to crack," Lund writes. "The group has embedded itself deep within the broader Syrian opposition, and it is a mainstay of opposition forces in the Idlib-Hama region and certain areas around Aleppo."
REUTERS/Hosam KatanIncidentally, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), an umbrella group encompassing many of Syria's more mainstream rebel groups, claimed on Tuesday that regime forces and/or Russian warplanes have attacked rebel-held positions in Idlib, Hama, Damascus, Homs, Quneitra, and Daraa since Saturday.
"If the Nusra Front continues to fight, and the Syrian and Russian governments continue to attack locations where Nusra jihadists are said to be present, how is a ceasefire supposed to hold?" Lund asks.
The Institute for the Study of War mapped Russia's airstrikes before and after the agreement took effect. The maps showed that while Russia's bombing campaign has slowed, its warplanes have continued to aggressively target rebel-held positions northwest of Syria's largest city, Aleppo.
The recent push by Assad's forces — backed by Russian air cover and Iran-backed Shi'ite militias — to cut off rebel supply lines from Turkey into Aleppo has resulted in some of the most significant battlefield gains for the regime since the Syrian civil war war erupted in 2011.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault addressed these accusations in a press conference on Monday.
"We have received indications that attacks, including by air, have been continuing against zones controlled by the moderate opposition," Ayrault told reporters at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, according to Reuters.
He then "demanded" that the task force charged with overseeing the cessation of hostilities "meet without delay" to resolve the disputes.
The Russian Ministry of Defense, for its part, said that both moderate and terrorist opposition factions had violated the agreement repeatedly since Saturday's truce.
"According to the Chief of the Russian center for reconciliation of opposing sides in Syria Lieutenant General Sergei Kuralenko, in the course of 24 hours, 9 events of the ceasefire violation were registered," the ministry .
Major world powers took part in a meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in early February to announce the terms of the plan, which was to be implemented with the help of two task forces focused on providing humanitarian aid to besieged cities and creating modalities to end the violence.