Syria will respect holiday ceasefire, but leaves room to respond to violence

Free Syria Army (FSA) fire towards regime loyalist soldiers during a battle to dislodge a sniper from its position overlooking the two main roads in the neighbourhood of Askar in Syria's northern city of Aleppo on October 24, 2012.

The Syrian government announced Thursday its decision to honor the four-day Eid al-Adha ceasefire proposed by international enjoy Lakhdar Brahimi and backed by the United Nations Security Council.

Al Jazeera wrote that the Syrian Army command said on state-run TV that it would cease military operations during the holiday. However, it reserved the right to respond to any incidents of violence or attempts by rebels to gain ground.

With so many factions in Syria involved in the fight, there are many doubts — not least among rebel groups themselves — about the chances of negotiating a real break to the violence. Heavy fighting has continued this week around the country.

Speaking by telephone from Syria's Atmeh, a town near the Turkish border, GlobalPost correspondent Tracey Shelton said that the violence is too far gone for a ceasefire to hold.

"Here, everyone is pretty much saying they don't trust it.... It's pretty difficult in any conflict to trust the enemy is going to agree to or actually follow a ceasefire."

In Aleppo, rebel forces have told Shelton they'll be on "high alert."

"They're worried in particular that the government will take this chance to change their troops — bring in more troops and reinforcements — and then be ready for a big onslaught straight after the ceasefire ends," she said.

Mohammed Hajuma, a Free Syrian Army coordinator in charge of refugees on the Turkish border, told Shelton he didn't have faith in the government's promise.

"We don't trust this. We know our government.... We know what they're capable of," he said.

The FSA has agreed to the ceasefire, though Shelton said the situation on the border is different from the areas inside the country with the heaviest fighting, where units are less connected to the leadership. However, the FSA will continue to protest nonviolently during Eid, Hajuma told Shelton. He believes that will draw a violent response from Assad's forces.

"Assad always talks a lot, but he will not stop.... Nothing will change. Maybe he will stop one attack, but he will work behind the scenes in another way," Hajuma said.

"Tomorrow after the midday prayers, people will protest, you will see. And when they do this, [Assad] will attack, and they will respond," he added.

Shelton herself expressed no optimism for the ceasefire to halt the violence. "No one's going to put down their arms at this stage.... People with any self respect couldn't sit around and say, yeah, we'll agree to follow this governent again," Shelton said.

The ceasefire, proposed by United Nations and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, is set to start on Friday and will last until Monday. On Thursday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon welcomed the Syrian government's decision, saying through a spokesman that humantarian workers are ready to enter Syria if the peace holds.

Brahimi had announced on Wednesday that the Syrian government and most opposition groups would back the truce, according to BBC. However, the Syrian foreign ministry said it was still studying the plan and at least one extremist group fighting against President Bashar al-Assad said they would not honor a truce.

CNN reported that the government was touting its good-will efforts on Thursday via state-run TV, showing footage of men walking out from behind bars. The limited show of amnesty comes after rebels said last week that they would only agree to a ceasefire if the government released detainees.

Human Rights Watch said, "Although Assad issued four amnesty decrees in 2011 and two others in January and May, security forces have kept many peaceful activists in detention."

The last attempted ceasefire, in April, lasted only a day before the violence began again. Around 32,000 Syrians have died since March 2011, according to opposition activists.

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Violence continued in Syria Thursday, with at least 25 people killed in clashes, according to Bloomberg, which cited the UK-based pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Clashes happened near Damascus, in Aleppo, and in Daraa and Deir Ezzor, according to the Observatory.

"There’s no sign at all of any preparation for a ceasefire, on both sides, because both sides are attacking each other," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Observatory.

Meanwhile, a UN-backed panel investigating war crimes said it has requested a meeting with Assad in order to gain access to Syria. Brazilian diplomat Sergio Pinheiro, who heads the panel, said they sought to meet with Assad "without any conditions," according to the Associated Press.

"We'll again seek our access to Syria and we decided to send a letter to President Assad calling for a meeting," said Pinheiro. "We expect that he will receive us in Damascus."

The panel includes Carla del Ponte, a former UN war crimes prosecutor. To date, the panel has gathered all its evidence of suspected war crimes from thousands of interviews with victims and refugees.

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GlobalPost correspondent Tracey Shelton contributed reporting from Atme, Syria.