BEIRUT (Reuters) – An emboldened President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Monday to take back all of Syria, hours before the start of a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, which Assad’s opponents described as stacked in his favor.
In a gesture loaded with symbolism, state television showed Assad visiting Daraya, a Damascus suburb long held by rebels but recaptured last month after fighters there surrendered in the face of a crushing siege. The Syrian leader performed Muslim holiday prayers alongside other officials in a bare hall in a Daraya mosque.
“The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists,” Assad said in an interview broadcast by state media, flanked by his delegation at an otherwise deserted road junction.
He made no mention of the ceasefire agreement, but said the army would continue its work “without hesitation, regardless of any internal or external circumstances”.
The ceasefire is due to take effect at sundown, and includes improved humanitarian aid access and joint U.S. and Russian targeting of hardline Islamists. But it faces big challenges, including how to separate nationalist rebels from the jihadists.
The rebels say the deal benefits Assad, who appears stronger than at any point since the early days of the war, with military support from Russia and Iran.
The capture of Daraya, a few kilometers (miles) from Damascus, followed years of siege and bombardment and has helped the government secure important areas to the southwest of the capital near an air base.
Backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, the army has also completely encircled the rebel-held half of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, which has been divided into government and opposition-held zones for years.
In the footage of his visit to Daraya, Assad, 51, appeared to be driving his own vehicle, a silver SUV, as he arrived at the mosque. He smiled and waved as he entered.
Daraya was evacuated following a local agreement between the army and rebels that let fighters escape to a rebel stronghold while civilians were sent to another government-held area. The U.N.’s aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, voiced “extreme concern”, emphasizing the harsh conditions that led to the surrender. The government has sought similar deals in other besieged areas.
Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war a year ago has tilted it in Assad’s favor, after rebel advances had posed a growing threat to his rule. It has also given Russia decisive leverage over international diplomacy that has thus far failed to make any progress towards a political settlement.
The Russia-U.S. deal is the second attempt to bring about a ceasefire this year, after an agreement concluded in February collapsed as each side blamed the other for violations.
Washington, which supports some rebel factions, has been seeking to refocus the fighting in Syria on the Islamic State group, which still controls swathes of the country and has not been included in any ceasefires.
Fighting raged on several key frontlines on Monday, including Aleppo and the southern province of Quneitra.
“There are no signs we are going to a truce so far,” said Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict.
The Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced 11 million people from their homes in the world’s worst refugee crisis. The new truce has official support from countries on both sides, including both Iran, Assad’s ally, and Turkey, a major sponsor of the insurgency against him.
Under the agreement, Russian-backed government forces and opposition groups, which are supported by the United States and Gulf States, would halt fighting for a while as a confidence building measure.
During this time, opposition fighters will have the chance to separate from militant groups in areas such as Aleppo.
But distinguishing rebels protected by the ceasefire from jihadists who are excluded from it is tricky, particularly with regards to a group formerly called the Nusra Front, which was al Qaeda’s Syria branch until it changed its name in July.
The group, which now calls itself Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, is playing a vital role in the battle for Aleppo allied with other rebel factions, but is still outside the ceasefire.
The United States has said the deal includes agreement that the government will not fly combat missions in an agreed area on the pretext of hunting fighters from the former Nusra Front. However, the opposition says a loophole would allow the government to continue air strikes for up to nine days after the ceasefire takes effect.
Nationalist rebel groups, including factions backed by Assad’s foreign enemies, wrote to Washington on Sunday to express deep concerns over the truce. The letter, seen by Reuters, said the opposition groups would “cooperate positively” with a ceasefire but believed the terms favored Assad.
It said the ceasefire shared the flaw that allowed the government to scupper the previous truce: a lack of guarantees, monitoring mechanisms or sanctions against violators.
It also said Jabhet Fateh al-Sham should be included in the truce, as the group had not carried out attacks outside Syria despite its previous ties to al Qaeda. Jabhet Fatah al-Sham said the deal aimed to weaken the “effective” anti-Assad forces, and to “bury” the revolution.
The government has made no comment on the agreement, but Syrian state media quoted what it called private sources as saying the government had given its approval.
The previous cessation of hostilities agreement resulted in a U.N.-led attempt to launch peace talks in Geneva. But these broke down before getting started in earnest.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said a new round of talks between the Syrian government and opposition may be held in early October, the RIA news agency said.
“I think that probably at the very beginning of October (U.N. Syria envoy Staffan) de Mistura should invite all the parties,” Bogdanov was quoted as saying.
(Additional reporting by Mohamed el Sherif in Cairo and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Peter Graff)
Photo: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with NBC News in this handout picture provided by SANA on July 14, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS