Syria agrees to holiday cease-fire — with some caveats

Posted at 11:39 AM, Oct 25, 2012
and last updated 2012-10-25 11:39:31-04

By Salma Abdelaziz, CNN

(CNN) – The Syrian government says it will suspend military operations from Friday morning to Monday.

This comes after U.N.-Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi proposed a cease-fire during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which last to Monday.

The government issued three caveats, however, in its announcement Thursday on Syrian state TV.

It reserves the right to respond to attacks by terrorists, including bombings, to respond to “terrorists” trying to reinforce their positions, and to protect neighboring borders that “terrorists” cross.

The announcement comes amid pessimism from rebels, who say that the government of President Bashar al-Assad continues to plow ahead with shelling and raids.

Opposition forces said government troops struck rebel targets in the war’s major hot spots, particularly in the most populous city of Aleppo. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported violence in Homs and Deir Ezzor.

At least 23 people died across the country Thursday amid fighting and shelling, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

“The regime is the one that is not willing to agree to cease-fire, and they have not stopped attacking civilians and they will not stop shelling in Eid,” said Abdualla Yasin, the rebel Free Syrian Army spokesman in Aleppo. They have betrayed us many times and they do not care if it is Eid or anything else, they will continue to kill.”

Eid al-Adha is a major holiday on the Muslim calendar. It is a joyous time of peace as the faithful celebrate the end of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The FSA’s Yasin said: “Our goal is to end the war as soon as possible and end the pressure on civilians. We wish that families can spend Eid in peace and calm. But this regime will not give us any respite. The regime has a split personality. It thinks it is control of the country and the army and it is in control of neither and cannot enforce orders.”

The government touted several goodwill efforts Thursday leading up to its announcement that it will stop fighting.

State-run TV aired footage of men walking out from behind prison bars — part of the government’s latest amnesty program for criminals, a commentator said.

The timing of the release is key. It comes a week after rebel fighters told Al Jazeera that they would agree to a proposed cease-fire only if the government released detainees, ended a siege in the city of Homs and stopped aerial attacks.

But the government amnesty isn’t sweeping. For example, it replaces the death penalty with a “life sentence of hard labor or long imprisonment sentence, according to the crime,” state-run media reported.

As the move was announced, rebels reported strategic military advances in the city of Aleppo. They say rebels haven’t yet gained control of the entire city but have a lot of momentum.

Yasin said the rebels took control of three Kurdish neighborhoods, overran others in the west, and made strides in other regions. He reported deaths and injuries of government troops.

“We have liberated a large area of western Aleppo” Yasin said. “We already had gains in the north, south, east and west,” he said.

He singled out the Kurdish community for permitting the presence of rebels in their neighborhoods. Much of the opposition is Sunni Arab and rebels are heartened by support from all groups in the diverse society.

“We were welcomed by the Kurds because people believe the FSA will liberate Syria,” Yasin said. “Every small gain brings us closer to victory. The FSA was also happy to unite another facet of Syrian society under the FSA umbrella.”

A cease-fire in April barely lasted a day before bodies started falling again. In total, more than 32,000 Syrians have died since the conflict began in March 2011, opposition activists say.

A spokesman for the Syrian National Council, an opposition coalition, has doubted the government’s sincerity.

“Based on our long experience in dealing with Assad(‘s) barbaric regime, we know that the Syrian government is just buying time and playing on words,” said George Sabra, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, which speaks for rebels fighting al-Assad.

“The whole world knows that the Syrian regime cannot be trusted and doesn’t have any credibility in fulfilling any promise that they make to anyone,” said Sabra, who is based in Paris. “The crisis is too complicated in Syria, and the Assad regime is trying a diversion.”

It’s foolish to expect a total cease-fire, said Aram Nerguizian, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. A cease-fire in this context is about a larger goal of getting most rebel brigades and al-Assad forces to temporarily stop or reduce the killing.

But the rebels themselves are partly to blame for this spring’s cease-fire failing, analyst Nerguizian said. They are disorganized and have been just as vicious in their killing as al-Assad’s forces.

Getting them on the same page and having them resist the urge to fight, he said, is unrealistic.

In Geneva, Switzerland, members of the U.N. commission investigating war crimes in Syria told reporters Thursday they want to meet with al-Assad and discuss access to Syria for the team.

“We decided to send a letter to President al-Assad calling for a meeting,” said Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

“We are not specifying the access for the commission, but we thought that taking into consideration the seriousness of the situation, we think that it would be very important that he could receive us and, of course, we expect that he will receive us in Damascus,” Pinheiro told reporters inside the U.N. building in Geneva.”

Carla del Ponte, once prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, is now part of the commission. Noted for her investigation of war crimes in the Balkans in the 1990s, she cited similarities with past probes.

“The similarity is, of course, we are handling the same crimes, crimes against humanity and war crimes for sure,” she said.

CNN’s Ashley Fantz, Holly Yan, Hamdi Alkhshali and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.