Another Russian-sponsored initiative for a lasting ceasefire in western Syria, where rebels lost a lot of ground in recent years, hit a snag due to violations.
It took only hours to hear gunshots after the truce was announced in an intention to set up a safe zone around Homs, a city in the north of Damascus.
In the first hours of Friday, Syrian army and opposition groups exchanged rocket and gunfire in the area, targeting each other’s territory without any casualty report, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory group said.
Hours before this report on Thursday, Russia, an ally of the Syrian regime, said it agreed with Syria’s opposition on a new “de-escalation” zone in the rebel-held villages north of government-held Homs.
According to what Russia’s Defence Minister Igor Konashenkov said on Russia’s state TV, a ceasefire in Homs, which was once an opposition stronghold before government forces took control in 2015, was to cover 84 settlements populated by more than 147,000 people. Besides Russia, Egypt and a Syrian political opposition also stated their role in the deal.
Egyptian state news agency MENA said Cairo had mediated between Moscow and Syrian rebel factions. Syrian political opposition Al-Ghad established a connection between rebels and the Damascus government.
Ahmad Jarba, the head of the group, had informed that the agreement was to cover three rebel-held towns and dozens of government-controlled-villages.
He said his group also played a role in a similar safe zone deal last month for Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel area near the Syrian capital Damascus. Russia said it deployed its military forces in the area to set-up de-escalation zone.
Unsurprisingly, the deal in eastern Ghouta dated July 22, similar to the one in Homs, hit by rockets and gunfire.
Around 70 rockets had fallen in last 24 hours on eastern Ghouta in the heaviest bombing since the de-escalation zone was declared, the monitoring group said. The group previously reported that at least 25 civilians, including seven children, were killed.
The area has been blockaded by Syrian government forces since 2013. In a swift advance, Russia-backed Syrian army consistently has taken control many rebel-held points near eastern Ghouta back then.
Following last week’s agreement between Lebanon-based Shi’ite Hezbollah and Nusra militants, about 7,000 Syrians, including jihadists and refugees, left the Arsal district on the border to reach the central city of Hama. In return, as part of the agreement, several captured Hezbollah fighters were released at the same crossing point.
Hezbollah-affiliated al-Manar television reported that more than 100 buses carrying refugees and rebels crossed the front lines from government territory and arrived in Saan in Hama province. Saan enables insurgents to reach rebel strongholds such as Idlib and large parts of Aleppo in northwest Syria.
In the hope of reaching to the North, Nusra militants approved to abandon the Arsal and let Hezbollah militants move into the area.
The Lebanese army, determined to clean its border from jihadists, is to soon begin an assault on Islamic State targets in the same area, according to a security source quoted by Reuters.
The head of Lebanon’s internal security service, General Abbas Ibrahim, said Saraya Ahl al-Sham, the only armed group in the area other than ISIS, would withdraw in the coming days as a part of the negotiations.
The transfer of jihadists within Syria under the agreement of Damascus is considered as “a clustering policy” of the Assad government. This is an effort to shuttle rebels and civilians to the northern region such as Idlib and neighboring opposition settlements, to carry the battle from areas close to the capital to the north.
On Friday, hours after Damascus let Nusra militants reach Hama, the heaviest fighting and shelling for months hit the city. Syrian forces and rebels battled 23 km (15 miles) north of Hama where hardline Islamist groups, including the Tahrir al-Sham alliance which contains al Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate al Nusra, are standing firm.
The Observatory reported casualties during heavy bombardment and clashes. Both parties blamed their rivals for being the “violator” as Hama province has mostly been out of clashes since a safe zone backed by Russia and Turkey took effect.