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Syrian military, some rebels accept 4-day UN cease-fire

By David Enders, McClatchy Newspapers –

BEIRUT — The Syrian military announced Thursday that it would abide by a United Nations-sponsored cease-fire during the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday, the first such agreement since April.

The cease-fire was set to begin at 6 a.m. Friday and last until Monday. Some of the rebel groups that are fighting the government said they’d adhere to the cease-fire as well, which was negotiated by Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria. The United States and Turkey, which back the rebels, and Iran, which supports the government of President Bashar Assad, had called for both sides to obey the cease-fire.

Opponents of the Syrian government said they were suspicious of its announcement but welcomed any potential respite from the fighting that has more than tripled in intensity since the last cease-fire, which was never fully implemented. More than 30,000 people have been killed in 19 months of violence, and hundreds of thousands have been driven from their homes.

“Syrians have no confidence in Assad’s announcements, because they have the experience of the U.N. observers and the Arab League observers,” said Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the Syrian National Council, which most of the foreign countries that have backed the rebels recognize as the political face of the opposition.

Ziadeh was referring to March and April, when the last U.N.-sponsored cease-fire was in effect. The number of people killed during those months dropped significantly, but the violence never stopped, with each side accusing the other of responsibility for the failure.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which tracks casualties caused by the government, reported that 58 people were killed Thursday. The group has reported fewer than 100 deaths on several days this month, a potential sign of slowing fighting after August and September, when daily tolls of more than 200 became common.

Government casualties are uncertain, but they, too, can be counted in the thousands. The Syrian government stopped releasing military casualty figures in June, when official government news reports showed that rebels were regularly killing dozens of soldiers a day, and there are indications that government casualties continue to grow. Jeff White, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center, said the Syrian military was losing an average of 40 soldiers a day in August. That number has risen to about 50 in October, he said. About four soldiers are wounded for each one killed, under standard military estimates, he said.

The decline in rebel and civilian deaths this month, while military casualties increased, may reflect that hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled battle zones since fighting surged over the summer.

The government’s acceptance of the cease-fire included caveats. The government said it reserved the right to respond to rebel attacks and to stop people and materiel from crossing the country’s borders. It also said it would strike to prevent rebels from reinforcing positions.

Some rebel groups agreed conditionally to the cease-fire, demanding the release of prisoners held by the government as well as the ability to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged areas.

Rebel spokesmen and sympathizers across the country claimed that the government was accepting Brahimi’s proposal because the rebels were gaining momentum in a number of areas and filling their arsenals with heavier weapons they’d managed to buy, capture or manufacture themselves, including locally made rockets.

There were reports Thursday that rebels had taken up positions in a number of areas previously held by the government in Aleppo, the country’s largest city.

“That’s why they asked for a cease-fire now,” said Mohamad al-Homsi, a member of the Revolutionary Military Council in Homs, the country’s third largest city and one of the most violent since fighting began in earnest more than a year ago.

“The regime is going to use it to reorganize his forces. For the FSA it is just a time for nothing,” he said, referring to the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella name that many of the rebels have adopted.

Rebels have been methodically taking over areas in the country’s north in an attempt to create a “safe zone” along the border with Turkey, but so far they still lack effective responses to the government’s artillery and air power. The government escalated its air campaign in the face of rebel gains on the ground since April, a move that some rebels read as a sign of weakness.

In an example of an engagement that’s become typical, rebels announced earlier this week that they had taken over Maaret al Numan, a strategic city on the main highway between Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s capital. The government responded quickly with punishing airstrikes, creating even more refugees.

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