'Can you hear that? It is the sound of birds singing'

By Liz Sly, Zakaria Zakaria

Across Syria's battered and blasted landscape, the relief was palpable as an unlikely truce actually took hold.
The destroyed city of Homs has become a symbol of the destruction and futility of the Syrian war. Photo / AP
The destroyed city of Homs has become a symbol of the destruction and futility of the Syrian war. Photo / AP

The unthinkable happened in Syria as an internationally mandated truce unexpectedly took hold across much of the country, raising hopes it was the beginning of an end to the five-year-old war.

There were scattered skirmishes and bursts of artillery fire, a car bomb killed two people in the province of Hama and Syrian warplanes dropped barrel bombs on a village in Idlib province, without causing casualties. But for the first time in a long time, the guns were almost completely silent, offering Syrians a welcome respite from the relentless bloodshed that has killed in excess of a quarter of a million people.

"We have not experienced such a thing since the beginning of the revolution," said Major Jamil al-Saleh, commander of the US-backed Tajamu al-Izza brigade in the Hama province town of Latamneh.

He and his men were taking advantage of the calm to clear the rubble from more than 50 air strikes in the town during the previous 48 hours, conducted by Russian warplanes in a late blitz to secure maximum advantage before the truce went into effect.

There were no planes in the skies of the much-bombed city of Aleppo, and residents there were venturing out on to the streets with new-found confidence, said Ameen al-Halabi, an activist living in a rebel-held neighbourhood.

"Today is so different. People feel safe, and you can feel more life in the streets," he said.

Russia's Defence Ministry said in Moscow the Russian Air Force had completely suspended air strikes over Syria to encourage the implementation of the two-week truce.

But a ministry spokesman indicated Russia may soon resume bombardments against groups not covered by the cessation of hostilities agreement -- Isis (Islamic State) and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

The suspension of the strikes "does not mean that Daesh or Nusra Front terrorists may breathe freely. We are in control of the situation all across Syria," said Lieutenant General Sergei Kuralenko, using the Arabic acronym for Isis.

This was the first attempt by the international community to bring about a ceasefire since a UN-led effort in 2012 collapsed within hours, and expectations were low that this one would succeed.

A Syrian boy plays between destroyed buildings in the old city of Homs, Syria. Photo / AP
A Syrian boy plays between destroyed buildings in the old city of Homs, Syria. Photo / AP

The exclusion of Jabhat al-Nusra was one of the reasons why Syrians had low expectations.

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters are scattered across rebel areas, making it hard to distinguish rebel positions from Jabhat al-Nusra ones, increasing the likelihood of bombardments targeting all groups.

Both sides to the conflict exchanged allegations of violations, with the Syrian Government accusing the rebels of firing shells into the capital city of Damascus and the Syrian opposition saying the government had infringed the truce in 15 different locations by day's end.

But for the most part, there was simply widespread relief that the bloodshed had paused at all, even if only for a day.

"Overall there is a mood of surprise that attacks have reduced significantly," said the White Helmets civil defence group, which was monitoring the violence nationwide.

During a call to the White Helmets team in the southern province of Daraa, one member switched on the speakerphone and asked: "Can you hear that? It is the sound of birds singing."

The calm bolstered hopes that a stalled peace effort to secure a broad settlement to the war may soon be revived. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, has tentatively set March 7 as the date for the resumption of the talks in Geneva, which collapsed without progress earlier this month.

The truce, scheduled initially to last for two weeks, is being officially referred to as a cessation of hostilities rather than a ceasefire because it is not intended to be a permanent solution. That is the goal of the peace talks, which have as their aim the creation of a transitional government that will pave the way for a full end to the hostilities and a long-term solution.

There was nonetheless widespread scepticism that the calm will last long enough to give real impetus to the peace talks.

Much time has already been taken out of a process that was intended to begin in January and was expected to last six months.

Turkish officials said Turkey supported the ceasefire and had expressed concern the wrangling over the implementation of the cessation of hostilities and the delivery of humanitarian aid were detracting attention from the need for a long-term political solution.

A dog drinks water between destroyed buildings in the old city of Homs , Syria. Photo / AP
A dog drinks water between destroyed buildings in the old city of Homs , Syria. Photo / AP

"The big picture has been lost," Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said in Ankara.

Rebel commanders said they feared the Government and its Russian allies would use the lull to regroup and reinforce their positions before resuming offensives. The truce follows months of advances by the government that have seen the rebels lose vital territory around Aleppo and along the Turkish border in the northwestern province of Latakia, reinforcing government confidence that it can win the war outright.

"Nothing has changed," said Captain Abdulsalam Abdulrazzak of the Noureddine al-Zinki rebel group, speaking from a frontline town west of Aleppo. "Russia and the regime consider the truce as a military tactic, not as a preparatory measure for a political solution."

In eastern Syria, dominated by the fight against Isis, the war continued uninterrupted. In a surprise setback for Kurdish forces, Isis fighters launched an assault against the border town of Tal Abyad, whose capture last summer had been hailed by the US military as a major success.

They swarmed the streets, overran a cultural centre and beheaded a tribal leader accused of cooperating with the Kurds before US warplanes intervened to bomb the Isis positions.

The Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, and local Arab allies grouped under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces claimed at nightfall to have secured full control of the town. But the incident illustrated the continued danger presented by the Islamic State even to areas from which it has already been ejected, and notably those where mostly Kurdish forces have taken over mostly Arab towns.

Five years of war

Deaths

150,463 total

92,407 civilians

20,442 regime forces

37,614 non-regime forces

Refugees

4.7 million have left country

6.5 million others displaced within Syria

- Washington Post, Bloomberg

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