Neither side honors Syria cease-fire on last day

 

McClatchy Newspapers

Fighting appeared to have returned to its former pace Monday on the final day of Syria’s four-day holiday cease-fire, underscoring the difficulties of finding a negotiated end to the country’s civil war.

Anti-government activists who’d reported a drop in violence Friday, when the cease-fire began, said Monday that shelling, clashes and airstrikes had resumed their previous intensity, and they claimed that government forces had launched the heaviest airstrikes in the capital, Damascus, since fighting began there three months ago.

The four-day cease-fire, proposed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha. The Syrian government had agreed to the cease-fire with conditions, along with some of the rebel groups that are fighting the government, while other rebel groups rejected the idea outright.

Violations came from both sides, including rebel car bombs and government aerial bombing.

“There was no desire from either side to stop fighting,” said Mousab al Hamadee, an anti-government activist near the city of Hama. The rebels “didn’t want this cease-fire to succeed because it would be a chance for the regime to redistribute forces in different areas.”

One key area where that dynamic played out was in Maaret al Numan, a city located strategically on the country’s main north-south highway that connects Damascus to the country’s commercial hub and largest city, Aleppo. Two weeks ago, rebels claimed to have taken control of Maaret al Numan and were threatening to overrun Wadi al Deif, a nearby military base.

Ahmed Zaki al Assi, an anti-government activist from the nearby city of Idlib, said the Syrian army took advantage of the cease-fire to move troops in Maaret al Numan and reinforce positions at Wadi al Deif. The rebels responded by attacking government positions. “There was no reason to continue complying with the cease-fire, so the clashes began again.”

“The shelling is just as bad as it was before,” said Abu Rami, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Command of Homs, one of many rebel factions in Homs, the country’s third largest city and the site of the longest ongoing siege by the Syrian military.

At least four groups regularly claim to speak for the rebels in Homs and the surrounding countryside, none of them part of the network led by Riad al Assad, the defected colonel who lives in a refugee camp in Turkey and has claimed to be the leader of the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group for the rebels.

The intensely fractured nature of the rebellion has made negotiating with the rebels as a whole impossible, something Brahimi admitted Monday at a news conference in which he lamented that the situation in the country was worsening.

Despite that assessment, the average number of daily deaths in October has been lower than that of recent months: so far, about 100 rebel and civilian deaths a day, compared with 150 on average in September and 180 in August. It’s difficult to determine why deaths are declining, though one likelihood is that more and more civilians have simply fled the areas where combat is taking place. There are no similar figures available for government forces and their supporters.

Brahimi’s call for a cease-fire was his first major overture to both sides since he took over in August from Kofi Annan. Annan had presided over a U.N. monitoring mission that began with a cease-fire agreement in mid-April that reduced the death toll significantly from its peak in March before it skyrocketed in June and July. As they did again this weekend, each side accused the other of using the April cease-fire to rearm and reinforce.

More than 35,000 civilians and rebels have been killed since the uprising in Syria began last year, and the number of casualties on the government’s side probably brings the tally to well over 40,000.

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @davidjenders

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