DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syrian rebels have agreed a truce with jihadists after clashes for a key border town, an NGO said Friday as a senior official said Damascus wanted a ceasefire in Syria’s wider conflict.
A deadline for the Syrian regime to hand over a list of its banned chemical weapons was also fast approaching.
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, meanwhile, offered to broker talks between the opposition and the Islamic republic’s government allies in Damascus.
After the latest round of a war-within-a-war between foes of the Syrian regime, the opposition National Coalition accused Al-Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) of violating the principles of the revolution.
ISIS seized the town of Azaz on the border with Turkey in hours-long fighting on Wednesday, in the latest in a growing spate of clashes between jihadists and mainstream rebel units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The Northern Storm brigade, which is loyal to the FSA and was based in Azaz, agreed to the truce with ISIS under which both sides pledged to observe a ceasefire, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The deal was brokered by Liwa al-Tawhid, a powerful rebel brigade loyal to the FSA, which sent fighters to the town on Thursday who have deployed between the two sides, the NGO said.
The rival groups also undertook to free detainees captured in the fighting and to immediately return any looted goods. Any future problems would be put to an arbitration committee, the Britain-based watchdog added.
Azaz has symbolic as well as strategic value as it was one of the first towns to be captured from government troops, in July 2012, by FSA fighters, who set up their own administration.
Tensions have spiralled between some mainstream rebel groups and ISIS in recent months, especially in northern Syria, where the opposition controls vast swathes of territory.
In the wider conflict, Syria’s deputy premier said Damascus believes the 30-month-old war in his country has reached a stalemate and would call for a ceasefire if long-delayed peace talks in Geneva were to take place.
“Neither the armed opposition nor the regime is capable of defeating the other side,” Qadri Jamil told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
When asked what his government would propose at the stalled Geneva II summit, he replied: “An end to external intervention, a ceasefire and the launching of a peaceful political process.”
On the northern front, the National Coalition issued a rare condemnation of ISIS, accusing the group of violating the principles of the revolution by turning its guns on FSA fighters.
“The Coalition condemns the aggressions against the forces of the Syrian revolution and the repeated disregard for the lives of Syrians, and considers that this behaviour runs contrary to the Syrian revolution,” a statement said.
It accused it of having “links to foreign agendas” and of seeking to create a “new state inside the Syrian state entity in violation of national sovereignty”.
The deployment of jihadists on the battlefield has deterred Western governments from providing the rebels with more than non-lethal assistance for fear that any weapons supplied might fall into the hands of extremists.
President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that France was in favor of sending weapons to the FSA, but only “in a controlled environment” and “with a number of countries”.
Washington too has repeatedly expressed concern about the risks of weaponry ending up in the hands of groups loyal to Al-Qaeda.
On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, U.N. envoys were set to resume talks Friday on a draft Security Council resolution that would enshrine a joint U.S.-Russian plan to secure and neutralise Assad’s banned chemical weapons.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that a U.N. report has proved the Syrian regime was behind a deadly chemical weapons attack in August that killed hundreds of civilians.
With the clock ticking down on the Russian-U.S. deal, the United States said Thursday that it expected Syria to hand over a list of its chemical arms within the next few days.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was last Saturday given a week to make a full declaration of his stockpile under the terms of the agreement struck in Geneva.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had been due to meet on Sunday in The Hague to discuss the framework accord, but that meeting has now been postponed.
On Thursday, Iran’s president said his government was ready to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and its opponents.
“We must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain. We must create an atmosphere where peoples of the region can decide their own fates,” Rowhani wrote in The Washington Post.
Photo Credit: AFP/Miguel Medina