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Syria truce takes hold, but residents cynical

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Idlib (Syria) (AFP)

A new ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey took hold Friday in northwestern Syria, but after years of failed truces residents like Fadi say they are not holding their breath.

The deal intends to stop a deadly Moscow-backed regime offensive since December against the country's last major rebel bastion of Idlib, which has displaced almost a million people from their homes and shelters.

"The regime and Russia always play this game," said 26-year-old Fadi, who has been displaced from second city Aleppo and now lives in Idlib.

"They gain control over new areas and then they agree on a truce, then months later they start a huge military operation all over again and take some more."

Damascus forces have clawed back a sizeable chunk of Idlib province from jihadists and allied rebels in the past years, in bursts of fighting punctuated by failed truces.

In the latest assault, Russian and regime strikes have killed almost 500 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

"How am I supposed to believe in this ceasefire?" asked Fadi.

The government has retaken large swathes of Syria with help from its Russian ally since 2015, through a combination of deadly military assaults and Russian-brokered surrender deals.

- 'Not optimistic' -

The Idlib bastion, one of the last regions to hold out on the Turkish border, is dominated by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate but Turkey-backed rebels are also present.

Many among the region's three million residents -- half of whom fled from other parts of Syria -- have little faith in promises made by Damascus or Moscow.

Abu Saeed, his wife and little boy, came to live in Idlib after fleeing the Damascus suburbs, back under government control since 2018.

"I'm not optimistic about this deal, and I don't expect anything from it," said the 24-year-old.

He insisted Russia and the regime have a bad track record when it comes to sticking to ceasefire deals.

"We may well see a new offensive. And then we will all close up shop and leave the country."

Syria's civil war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions both at home and abroad since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests.

In an interview with Russian television aired Thursday, President Bashar al-Assad said retaking control of Idlib was a "priority".

Among the nearly one million people displaced in northwest Syria since December according to the United Nations, many have fled northwards towards the closed Turkish border.

Turkey already host 3.6 million Syrian refugees, and is reluctant to let any more in.

- 'Zero faith' -

Instead, tens of thousands are camping out in the open air in the rain and cold, while others have sought shelter in schools, mosques and unfinished buildings. Some have even settled in a cemetery and others in a prison.

In the town of Dana near the Turkish border, Abu Bassil said the ceasefire was "nothing more than a lie and deception from Russia".

"Its aim is simply to consolidate the positions that regime forces have taken," he said.

"In a while, they'll start up the bombardment again."

Adnan, 30, agreed.

"We have zero faith in this ceasefire," he said.

Each truce allows the regime to pause and "put their house in order before coming back and doing it all over again".

"The regime will renew its attacks and gain more ground amid outrageous international silence," he added.

In the town of Binnish further south, Fadi Obaid said a ceasefire is not one unless all those displaced can actually go home.

"We hope the truce means civilians can go home. If that doesn't happen, it'll be nothing but ink on paper."

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