Violence in Syria has decreased considerably in the last week, following an agreement by international powers to a cessation of hostilities in the country’s five year civil war.
“In general, the cessation has been holding,” Staffan de Mistura, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Syria, said Thursday. He told reporters in Geneva that violence had been “greatly reduced” and “success is not guaranteed but progress is visible.”
Syria’s civil war started in March 2011 after protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad were suppressed with brutal force. Protesters picked up arms, regional and international powers backed the opposing sides, and radical Islamists infiltrated Syria, leaving over 250,000 people dead and the country in chaos. Many civilians were in dire need of a ceasefire, especially in parts of the country besieged by Assad’s army where locals are dealing with starvation.
UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said aid is being delivered to these besieged areas, including the eastern city Deir az-Zour, where 200,000 people are now surrounded by militants from ISIS.
The cessation of hostilities does not apply to fighting against ISIS or the al-Qaeda aligned Nusra Front.
While the halt of violence is a welcome reprieve to many Syrians, the cessation has seen reports of violations. A number of infractions have been reported in Homs, Hama, Latakia and Damascus, according to de Mistura. In the rebel-held town of Jisr al-Shughour, residents say government shelling has yet to subside, and in Latakia civilians are in still in danger of falling shells with the regime and opposition trading accusations of cessation violations.
“It’s the calm before the storm,” Abdallah Akhras, a resident from near Jisr al-Shughour, told Reuters. “This truce is nothing more than a preparation for a huge battle. They (the government) are now amassing forces to begin on every front.”
The regime regularly labels all opposition groups as terrorists, which may explain the rationale behind their continued attacks.
Meanwhile, civilians provided a jeremiad against a hotline set up to report violations of the cessation of hostilities. Operators were accused by Syrians of not speaking proficient Arabic.
“We are aware that there were some language issues and we’re working to correct those, obviously, because it’s important that we have Arabic speakers that are able to field incoming calls,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, adding that operators “weren’t properly vetted.” The phone number for the hotline has a local Washington, D.C. area code and is not toll free, according to the Wall Street Journal.