BEIRUT: A ceasefire in Syria brokered by Russia and the United States is due to begin at sundown on Monday, after scores of civilians were killed in a bloody weekend of strikes.
The truce, announced after marathon talks by the Russian and US foreign ministers, has been billed as the best chance yet to end Syria’s five-year civil war estimated to have killed more than 290,000 people.
As the clock ticked towards sunset when the ceasefire is expected to start, rebels battling the Syrian regime and the political opposition were still weighing whether to abide by the agreement.
Only one rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, had given its official reaction — a rejection of the ceasefire deal, which the influential hardline Islamists said would only serve to strengthen the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
But even as world powers threw their support behind the deal, weekend strikes on the key opposition cities of Aleppo and Idlib killed at least 74.
Regime air raids on rebel-held parts of Aleppo killed six civilians and wounded 30 on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“We hope there will be a ceasefire so that civilians can get a break. The shelling goes on night and day, there are targeted killings, besieged cities,” said Abu Abdullah, who lives in Aleppo’s rebel-held east.
“Civilians have no hope anymore,” he added.
Unidentified warplanes bombarded both cities on Saturday, killing 62 in Idlib alone.
The strikes in Idlib hit several areas including a market full of shoppers preparing for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins on Monday.
Assad, allies welcome truce
State news agency SANA reported on Saturday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government “approved the agreement” for a truce.
Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which has intervened militarily on behalf of Assad, also announced its support.
Key Assad and Hezbollah backer Iran also welcomed the deal, although foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi cautioned that its success relies on creating “a comprehensive monitoring mechanism, in particular control of borders in order to stop the dispatch of fresh terrorists” to Syria.
Syria’s main opposition group the High Negotiations Committee—grouping political dissidents as well as armed rebel faction—had yet to formally respond.
But the hardline Ahrar al-Sham, which works closely with former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, rejected the deal, saying it would “send all the sacrifices and gains of our people who have risen up into smoke.”
Fateh al-Sham is not covered by the truce agreement but it too dismissed the plan, with spokesman Mostafa Mahamed writing on Twitter: “Negotiations and deals which do not take account of fighters on the ground are useless.”
The agreement was reached after talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.
It would see fighting and indiscriminate air attacks halt across the country, starting at sundown on Monday for 48 hours, which could then be renewed.
To get aid into besieged Aleppo, cut off last week by regime forces for the second time in two months, a “demilitarized zone” would be established around the Castello Road into the city.
If the ceasefire holds for one week, the US and Russia—which back opposing sides in the conflict—could start joint operations against jihadists from the Islamic State group and Fateh al-Sham.