UPDATE 1300 GMT: Local activists say Hezbollah and the Assad regime are breaking the ceasefire within hours of its initiation, including airstrikes with barrel bombs.
Meanwhile, the chief negotiator for the Syrian opposition in upcoming political talks in Kazakhstan has said that the delegation will test the Assad regime’s commitment to a ceasefire, the release of detainees, and an end to sieges.
“We’re going to Astana in hopes of securing a ceasefire, especially in the Wadi Barada and Eastern Ghouta areas [near] Damascus,” Mohammad Alloush, a senior official of Jaish al-Islam. “If a [ceasefire] deal — that includes observers -=- can be hammered out, the whole world will know who is violating the truce and who is shelling civilians.”
Alloush’s comments confirm those made earlier this week by rebel sources to EA. The sources said they did not expect Russia and the Assad regime to accept the conditions, with the regime delegation quickly stalling out the negotiations in a debate over the agenda.
The sources said the opposition and rebels will then use the Russian-regime blocking of an advance to sway the opinion and presentation of mainstream media.
Alloush also said that Moscow and the regime cannot control pro-Assad Syrian and foreign units: “[The Shia] militias don’t listen to Russia or the regime. They killed retired Major-General Ahmed al-Ghadban [the mutually-agreed lead negotiator of an agreement over Wadi Barada].”
Al-Ghadban was killed in disputed circumstances last week, a day after he arranged a truce.
Alloush continued with the presentation of Assad and the militias as the barriers to resolution, “Russia now appears convinced of the need for a political solution to the crisis, unlike its position at the 2016 talks in Geneva.” He said:
We only want peace, freedom and justice….
If we achieve what we want at the talks, this will be enough; there will be no need to fight.
But if we don’t [get what we want], those still holding their weapons will continue their struggle until victory.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: Opposition outlets said on Thursday that a ceasefire deal has been reached to halt the four-week pro-Assad offensive on Wadi Barada, northwest of Syria’s capital Damascus.
The outlets posted the text of an agreement in which engineers will be able to reach infrastructure for the al-Fija springs, which provide more than 60% of the capital’s water, after the pumping facility was damaged by regime airstrikes. Families will return to the area of 10 villages, while rebels will withdraw to Idlib Province in northwest Syria.
The deal was reportedly brokered by a German diplomat, Andreas Krüger, after an earlier accord broke down when the head negotiator, retired Syrian general Ahmad Gharban, was killed last weekend in disputed circumstances. Accounts differed on whether Gharban was shot by rebels, a lone gunman linked to the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra, or a Hezbollah sniper.
Hezbollan and the Assad regime launched the assault on Wadi Barada, with between 50,000 and 100,000 people, on December 22. The attackers ignored a ceasafire brokered a week later by Russia and Turkey, continuing bombing, shelling, and ground attacks. President Assad promised the offensive would continue until the last “terrorist” left the area.
Despite the intensity of the assault, the pro-Assad forces have only taken one village, Bassima, as well as some high ground near the al-Fija springs. However, local activists and aid organizations have warned that people face the exhaustion of food and supplies because of the Hezbollah-regime siege.
US Expands Strikes Killing Rebels and Jihadists
The US is continuing its airstrikes killing the jihadists of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and members of certain rebel factions.
The latest attacks killed and wounded dozens of JFS fighters and members of the Nour al-Din al-Zinki faction in a camp in western Aleppo Province.
US attacks have escalated in recent weeks on JFS commanders and bases, leaving scores dead. The assault has also expanded to kill some members of the leading rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham.
Turkey: Assad Removal No Longer Required
Ankara is no longer insisting on President Assad’s removal as part of the resolution of the Syrian conflict, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said on Friday.
“As far as our position on Assad is concerned, we think that the suffering of (the) Syrian people and the tragedies, clearly the blame is squarely on Assad. But we have to be pragmatic, realistic,” Simsek told a panel on Syria and Iraq at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Simsek added, “The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, so Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad, it’s not realistic.”
Ankara has called for Assad’s departure since soon after the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, but it has edged away from the demand since the reconciliation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in August.
Political talks, brokered by Turkey and Russia, between the regime and opposition are scheduled for January 23 in Kakakhstan. The opposition and rebels are standing on the condition that President Assad must leave during a transition.