Many Have Doubts Over Syria Cease-Fire

A cease-fire was supposed to go into effect Friday in Syria, but many have doubts it'll take hold. NPR's Kelly McEvers spent the day before the appointed truce hour in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between government and rebel forces over the past two months. She speaks with Renee Montagne.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In cities around Syria, sounds of protests have mostly replaced the sounds of gunfire and mortars. It's the first day of a cease-fire, agreed to by the Syrian government and the main rebel group. The Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, which marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, offered an opportunity for both sides to call a four-day truce; a truce that appears fragile, and may already have been broken.

We're joined now by NPR's Kelly McEvers, who is in Aleppo, which has seen intense fighting in recent days. And Kelly, tell us where you are, exactly; what you're seeing.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Yeah. I'm (technical difficulties) neighborhood of Bustan al-Basha. It actually means "garden of the prince"; probably dates back to the Ottoman times. It doesn't look like much of a garden right now. We're right next to a pile of rotting garbage. A lot of the shops are closed. This has been one of the front lines here, in the city of Aleppo, in recent - last three months, actually - of fighting.

And, you know, today is Eid al-Adha, as you mentioned. It's the feast of the sacrifice. It's supposed to be a pretty happy day. People go out and buy new clothes and sweets, and get a haircut, and celebrate with their family. There is some sign, in this neighborhood, that people are doing that but for the most part, it seems like folks are either shut in their apartments or their houses, or they're just - they've evacuated the area altogether.

MONTAGNE: Well, as I mentioned, there are already reports on blogs, and elsewhere, that the cease-fire has been broken. What do you know about that?

MCEVERS: Right. So just a few minutes' drive from here - we had to drive to this area in order to get a phone signal. We were on one of those - very close to one of those front lines, and shots were being fired; mostly, at the time, by the rebels firing at regime forces. So it was clear, from the booms we were hearing around us, that the cease-fire had already been broken. We talked to a rebel commander of a local group there - from one of the Islamist groups, called Ahrar al-Sham. And he told us that the fighting started this morning, around 8:30. That's two and a half hours after the cease-fire was supposed to go into effect.

He says that regime tanks fired on his men, who were guarding their positions. You know, he tells the story as if they were all, of course, totally innocent in all of this. One man was killed. And as they were trying to pull his body out, another was killed and four others were injured. What we're seeing now, in this area, is a lot of rebel fighters jumping into trucks, getting ready to go off onto some fight. So it seems like today is going to be like most days in Aleppo - a day of fighting. What we aren't seeing yet, this morning, is jets; and that is something that has been a pretty regular sight, over the skies of Aleppo. We're not seeing that. So it's possible that the regime's army is not firing down on the city, from the air.

MONTAGNE: So the government would appear to be holding back - at least, a bit. But one thing the rebels - even in announcing this cease-fire, or discussing this cease-fire - were always suspicious that this was basically a way for the government to regroup, to rearm, to reorganize. So there was a lot of suspicion, already, that it wouldn't be to the advantage of the rebels.

MCEVERS: It's exactly what the commander told us today. He said, you know, they used the quiet this morning - advance their position. He says that that's what the regime's army was doing; that tanks advanced further into rebel territory, and that they were covered by snipers. Again, we cannot independently verify this. It's not something we saw with our own eyes.

Aleppo is basically two cities, right now. You've got half of the city controlled by the rebels; the other half is controlled by the government. So we're only getting the rebels' side of the story, on this side of the city. So it's impossible to verify the other side.

MONTAGNE: So in brief, what we're left with is - it looks like on this first day of this truce - that there is no real, solid truce.

MCEVERS: Right. And, you know - I mean, part of the problem here is that the rebel groups themselves are not one, cohesive unit. We talked to some fighters who said, we'd love to have a day of rest - you know; we'd love to just hold our positions, and put down our guns for a day. It's a holiday. We'd like to spend it with our family. But then some of these other groups - these Islamist groups - seemed, from the get-go, to not be all that supportive of the cease-fire. And, you know, it's - using the regime as an excuse, to continue fighting? I don't know if that's what they were doing. But it looks like - at least right here, where I'm standing - there is no cease-fire.

MONTAGNE: Well, Kelly, take care of yourself, and thanks very much.

MCEVERS: Sure.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers, speaking to us from the city of Aleppo, Syria.

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