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Syrian Cease-Fire Negotiated By U.S., Russia Goes Into Effect

A Syrian man, flanked by his son and his nephews, lays a myrtle branch on the grave of his brother at a cemetery in the rebel-held town of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, on Monday, on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

A Syrian cease-fire went into effect at sundown on Monday, at approximately 11:45 a.m. EDT.

Just hours before the start of the planned cease-fire, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced on state media that he plans to "reclaim every area from the terrorists," The Associated Press reports. Assad's government had earlier indicated it would abide by the negotiated truce.

The planned week-long cease-fire is part of a deal negotiated between the U.S., which supports opposition forces, and Russia, which supports Assad's government. If it indeed takes effect and if aid successfully reaches besieged areas, Russia and the U.S. intend to work together to coordinate airstrikes on extremist groups, including the Islamic State.

The deal was announced late Friday. Over the weekend and on Monday, as the start time for the cease-fire approached, there were reports of fresh violence in Syria — what The New York Times described as a sharp uptick in attacks.

The AP reports that strikes on Saturday — presumably from Russia or the regime, hitting rebel-held areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces — "killed over 90 civilians, including 13 children in an attack on a marketplace in Idlib, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights."

On Monday, the news service says, activists reported fresh bombings in opposition areas in northern Syria.

As NPR's Alice Fordham reported on Friday, it's easy to find reasons why the U.S. and Russian plan could fail.

Even the diplomats who crafted the deal acknowledge that, as Alice puts it, "the agreement sits on a foundation of profound mistrust and comes after a similar effort, introduced in February, gradually fell apart."

Still, she tells Morning Edition that as of Monday morning, it's "a distinct possibility" that both sides will abide by the truce.

"The idea is that because Russia supports the regime and the U.S. supports the rebels, each of them can get their allies to stop the fighting," Alice says. "With comments published in state media, the regime has indicated it will abide by the cease-fire. But a lot of the rebels are extremely skeptical — they don't trust the Russians at all.

"There are many concerns that the opposition have raised with the Americans, such as the lack of any sort of enforcement mechanism — which is to say punishment for any violation of the cease-fire," she explains. "So a lot of [the rebels] have indicated in principle that they want to abide by a cease-fire, but there's a lot of questions hanging over it still."

And even if the cease-fire goes well, Alice says, that's only the beginning of the challenge. The second phase of the deal — with the U.S. and Russia cooperating on strikes on extremists — is difficult for a number of reasons, including the fact that the two countries don't agree on what constitutes an extremist. On top of that, one group that the U.S. considers part of al-Qaida has become more integrated with other opposition forces, Alice says, raising questions of how airstrikes could effectively target just that group.

"A lot of questions remain," Alice tells the Two-Way. "Although if this works, and the guns fall silent tonight — and some aid gets into besieged areas, which is the plan — that's going to be a relief, especially to civilians ...

"It's the Eid festival right now. It will feel like a godsend."

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