Kilis, Turkey—The first major truce in Syria’s bloody five-year civil war is set to begin on Saturday, following a deal brokered between the United States and Russia. The planned “cessation of hostilities” has emerged as Aleppo, once mostly a rebel stronghold, teeters on the verge of collapse in the face of a Syrian government offensive propelled by heavy Russian bombing. There is little confidence from rebels—increasingly battered by Bashar al-Assad’s army, ISIS, and the Syrian Kurdish forces—that the agreement will hold.
The deal is open to all regime and rebel armed groups except the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) and the Al Qaeda–linked Nusra Front, but it is unclear if it will temper a proxy conflict that has claimed as many as 470,000 lives and left the non-jihadist opposition in disarray. Intense Russian bombardment and the advance of Syrian regime ground forces led by Hezbollah this month has changed the course of the war, cutting rebel supply lines from Turkey and encircling Aleppo city.
Abu Mohammad Aziz, the nom de guerre of a commander in the Levant Front, which is fighting in northern Aleppo province, doesn’t believe Russia or the regime will adhere to the truce, which is intended to redirect armed efforts at jihadi forces.
“The Russians will continue to bomb us and claim they are hitting ISIS or Nusra,” the battlefield leader in the Islamist-leaning armed coalition tells The Nation. His group has received training from Saudi Arabia and is supported by Turkey but has been losing ground and taking heavy casualties, flanked by regime forces to the south and ISIS to the east. “The regime can’t be trusted,” he says bitterly, about the proposed agreement.
He says no decision has been taken by his military and political leadership on whether to sign on to the truce, but he believes they will do so because of the desperation of their situation in Aleppo. The province was a key political, military, and strategic stronghold of the uprising against the Assad regime. As the popular revolt of 2011 turned into a regional conflict, Aleppo became essential for NATO and Gulf countries to supply their Syrian proxies with weapons and other supplies.
Now, Abu Aziz warns that Aleppo, Syria’s most populous governorate and its second-largest city, is on the verge of falling, with much of it having been retaken by Assad’s forces and part of it by jihadi groups, including ISIS. His description sounds like an ideal situation for Assad, who in the early days of the revolution released jihadists from government prisons as his regime cracked down on mass anti-authoritarian protests. Since then, Assad has deliberately denied the existence of the popular, non-jihadi opposition and labeled all opponents as terrorists.
The Syrian Kurdish nationalist forces, called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, nominally oppose Assad but have also engaged in hostilities with anti-regime as well as jihadi groups. They have taken advantage of the vacuum created by the Russian air assault to seize border areas. For the Kurds, it is seen as an opportunity to expand their autonomous zones in Syria even as Turkey has started shelling the YPG as its forces advance in Aleppo. At the same time, Turkish government and security forces continue a brutal crackdown on Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey, which are closely allied with but separately organized from the YPG.