Syrian opposition has yet to commit to fighting halt

A boy carries an opposition flag on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria on Feb 23, 2016.
A boy carries an opposition flag on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria on Feb 23, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (REUTERS) - The Syrian opposition has yet to commit to a US-Russian plan to stop fighting in Syria on Saturday, its chief negotiator said, underlining rebel doubts over a deal they fear will not stop Russian air strikes against them.

Combatants are required to say whether they will agree to the "cessation of hostilities" by noon on Friday (1000 GMT), and to halt fighting at midnight Saturday. The deal does not include Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate which is widely deployed in opposition-held areas.

The Saudi-backed HNC, which groups political and armed opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, said on Monday it had "given its acceptance of international efforts for a cessation of hostilities".

But HNC chief negotiator Mohamad Alloush said on Wednesday (Feb 24) the council had yet to decide whether to commit to the deal.

"There was no consultation of Syrians. Will all the observations, additions and amendments requested by Syrians be taken into consideration?," Alloush said in an interview with the pro-opposition Orient TV station.

The opposition fears government forces backed by the Russian air force will continue to attack rebels under the pretext of targeting the Nusra Front.

"How can (Russia) offer guarantees while it is part of the problem," Alloush said. "Will this ceasefire be inclusive of parties we view as terrorists - the party of Hassan Nasrallah and the Shi'ite militias?" he added, referring to Lebanon's Hezbollah and other groups fighting alongside the Syrian army.

The HNC, which is meeting in Riyadh, was working on an official memorandum containing observations to be sent to states involved with the agreement, said Alloush, who heads the political office of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.

The Syrian government, its war effort buoyed since September by the Russian air force, has accepted the agreement announced on Monday. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday that his government was ready to assist in implementing the deal, the Kremlin and the Syrian presidency said.

Putin and Assad, who held a telephone conversation, stressed the importance of a continued "uncompromising" fight against Islamic State, the Nusra Front and other militant groups "which are included in the respective list of the United Nations Security Council", the Kremlin said. It gave no further details.

The Syrian presidency made no mention of the Security Council list.

An HNC spokesman said on Tuesday the US-Russian plan for a"cessation of hostilities" included "obscure terms" and was heavily influenced by Russia.

The Syrian government said on Tuesday it would work with Moscow to define which groups and areas would be included in the "cessation of hostilities". Damascus views all the groups fighting Assad as terrorists.

The United Nations hopes the planned cessation of hostilities will provide a breathing space for Syrian peace talks to resume. The last round in Geneva broke up earlier this month without progress after the Syrian government launched a Russian-backed offensive on the city of Aleppo.