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Syrian rebels prepared to accept cease-fire

The peace deal, brokered by the US and Russia, would see those nations take over airstrikes on militants in one week.

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Rebel fighters ride in a truck near Quneitra, Syria, on Sunday.

Alaa Al-Faqir/Reuters

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Rebel factions in Syria are prepared to honor a U.S.-Russian-brokered cease-fire while communicating deep reservations about its terms, according to a leader in the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia.

The agreement is set to come into effect in stages beginning with a limited cease-fire Monday night that allows the Syrian government to continue to strike at al-Qaida-linked militants, until the U.S. and Russia take over the task in one week's time.

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The arrangement has divided rebel factions, who have depended on the might of a dominant al-Qaida-linked faction to resist government advances around the contested city of Aleppo. The leader of at least one U.S.-backed rebel faction has publicly called the offer a "trap."

The deal has received the endorsement of President Bashar Assad's government and its key allies — Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

According to its terms, both Assad's forces and rebels would halt attacks, while the U.S. and Russia would join forces against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria.

But that scenario is complicated by the fact that the powerful al-Qaeda-linked faction, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, remains intertwined with several other factions. It is not clear how these governments intend to distinguish between Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and other allied rebel factions or how they will be able to attack the al-Qaida linked militants without hitting other rebels as well.

According to a leader in the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham militia, Syria's Islamist factions have no intention of fully splitting with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. But they will nevertheless abide by the cease-fire to regroup after a punishing contest with pro-government forces over Aleppo.

"The Islamist factions and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham will abide by the cease-fire without publicly declaring it. They will announce they are against they are opposed to the U.S.-Russian agreement But they will halt their operations on the ground because of the losses they sustained in the battles for Aleppo," said the leader, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Other factions less closely tied to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, including those backed by Turkish ground forces in the northern frontier area, will publicly commit to the agreement, according to the leader.

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"The free Syrian factions under the Euphrates Shield banner will announce their commitment to the agreement, of course," he said.

Despite fundamental differences in their vision for Syria, rebels and opposition activists hailed a rebel coalition led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham when it broke a government siege on the rebel-held eastern quarters in Aleppo. The U.N. estimated a quarter million residents were trapped inside with dwindling food and medical supplies.

The government has since re-established its siege.

The cease-fire agreement, if honored, will open corridors for the U.N. to reach Syrians in Aleppo with badly needed relief. Forty days of fighting in Aleppo has killed nearly 700 civilians, including 160 children, according to a Syrian human rights group.

On Saturday, presumed Russian or government airstrikes on rebel-held 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.

In the aftermath on Sunday, rebels and opposition activists were asking whether the government's side could be trusted.

"What truce, when the regime commits a massacre in Idlib?" said Ahmad Saud, commander of the U.S.-backed Division 13 brigade, on Twitter. "I am starting to feel that the truce is a military trap to kill us more."

Several previous negotiated cease-fires have all eventually collapsed. A partial "cessation of hostilities" that brought sorely needed relief to civilians in March unraveled as the government continued to strike targets in opposition areas, including near a hospital and school near Damascus and a marketplace in Idlib province, killing dozens of civilians.

Previous cease-fires were also preceded by soaring violence as parties on all sides sought to improve their positions in the build-up.