DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: The Syrian military said Monday it has temporarily halted combat operations in the south ahead of Russian-sponsored cease-fire talks with the rebels.
The army general command said in a statement carried on state television the cessation of hostilities began at noon Sunday and was to support “reconciliation efforts,” in the second such unilateral cessation of hostilities in the last two weeks.
The latest announcement for the first time extends the cessation of hostilities to the whole of southern Syria, including the southwestern Qunaitra province near the border with Israel and Swaida province in the southeast.
The statement came after a large Syrian rebel faction in the south said it would not attend the talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, because the government was not abiding by previous cease-fire agreements.
Both sides have held four previous rounds of talks in Kazakhstan since January in parallel to U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva.
Neither process has made much progress. A cease-fire declared in May and built around so-called “de-escalation zones,” one of which is in the south, has been repeatedly violated.
The military announcement, carried on Syrian state media, said the present pause would run until July 6, to “support the peace process and national reconciliation.”
Delegates are expected to begin meeting with a U.N. mediator and other diplomats in Astana Tuesday.
But fighting has continued in front-line areas, including in Deraa city in southern Syria, with hostilities expanding to the border province of Qunaitra along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
A rebel official said the latest cessation of hostilities was a ploy to drag the opposition to Astana.
The rebel side has already expressed deep misgivings about the de-escalation zones, which they say benefit the Syrian army by freeing forces to allow them to make territorial gains elsewhere. “This cease-fire is an attempt by the Russians and the regime to bring back the opposition to Astana and give them assurances on the ground they will stop the shelling on condition they attend,” said Sohaib al-Raheel, spokesman of Liwa al-Furqan, a faction of the rebel Free Syrian Army operating in southwest Syria.
A spokesman for the Southern Front, a coalition of Western-backed FSA rebel groups, cast doubt on whether the Syrian government army and its Iranian-backed allies would halt attacks on the front lines in Deraa and in Qunaitra province.
“The Free Syrian Army are very distrustful of the regime’s intentions in abiding by the cease-fire. It will be like the previous one,” Maj. Issam al-Rayes told Reuters.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad meanwhile questioned the credibility of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, saying the inspectors had failed to visit key sites linked to a nerve gas attack that killed 89 people. Mekdad dismissed an OPCW report released last week confirming the use of sarin gas on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in April. He said the inspectors refused government invitations to visit the site of the attack in northern Syria or the military airport allegedly linked to it.The report, which drew on samples taken to Turkey, did not say who was responsible for the attack. The results will be turned over to a joint commission with the U.N. to apportion blame.
Syria insists it has never used chemical weapons.
The Pentagon said last week that intelligence showed the Syrian military preparing another chemical weapons attack at the same air base the U.S. said was used to launch the Khan Sheikhoun attack on April 4. U.S. President Donald Trump ordered punitive missile strikes on the Shayrat air base less than a week after that attack.
Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, called the U.S. statement a provocation.
In a news conference Monday, Mekdad said the idea the Syrian government would use chemical weapons was “impossible,” given that it was already winning the war against its opponents. “Why would the Syrian government undertake such stupid measures?” he asked.