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Syria ceasefire takes effect with Assad emboldened, opposition wary

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A nationwide ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia went into effect in Syria on Monday evening, the second attempt this year by Washington and Moscow to halt the five-year civil war.

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Smoke from explosions rises during fighting in the village of Jubata Al Khashab, held by Syrian rebel groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, as seen from the Israeli side of the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A nationwide ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia went into effect in Syria on Monday evening, the second attempt this year by Washington and Moscow to halt the five-year civil war.

The Syrian army, announced the truce at 7 p.m. local time, the moment it took effect, saying the seven-day "regime of calm" would be applied across Syria. It reserved the right to respond with all forms of firepower to any violation by "armed groups."

Rebel groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad issued a joint statement listing deep reservations with the agreement they described as unjust, echoing concerns outlined in a letter to the United States on Sunday. While the statement did not explicitly back the ceasefire, rebel sources said the groups were abiding by it.

"Regarding a truce, a ceasefire, the delivery of aid, this is a moral question and there is no debate around this, we absolutely welcome this, but there are other articles around which there are reservations," Zakaria Malahifji of an Aleppo-based rebel faction told Reuters.

Combatant sources on both sides said calm was prevailing in the first hours of the ceasefire. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, shared that assessment.

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Russia is a major backer of Assad, while the United States supports some of the rebel groups fighting to topple him.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said early reports suggested there had been some reduction in violence.

He told reporters at the State Department that it was too early to draw a definitive conclusion about how effective the truce will be, and that there would no doubt be some reports of violations "here and there."

The agreement's initial aims include allowing humanitarian access and joint U.S.-Russian targeting of jihadist groups, which are not covered by the agreement.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that aid to the besieged city of Aleppo would start immediately.

Besher Hawi, a resident of opposition-held Aleppo, said the city had been calm since the ceasefire came into force, after a heavy day of bombardment.

"It's excellent but I certainly have no confidence in the regime. It could bomb at any moment," he told Reuters from Aleppo, speaking via a web-based messaging system.

The agreement comes at a time when Assad's position on the battlefield is stronger than it has been since the earliest months of the war, thanks to Russian and Iranian military support. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed in the conflict and 11 million made homeless in the world's worst refugee crisis.

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Hours before the truce took effect, an emboldened Assad vowed to take back all of Syria. In a gesture loaded with symbolism, state television showed him visiting Daraya, a Damascus suburb long held by rebels but recaptured last month after fighters surrendered in the face of a crushing siege.

"The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists," Assad said in an interview broadcast by state media. Earlier he performed Muslim holiday prayers alongside other officials in a bare hall in a Daraya mosque.

He made no mention of the ceasefire agreement, but said the army would continue its work "without hesitation, regardless of any internal or external circumstances."

The ceasefire is the boldest expression yet of hope by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama that it can work with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war. All previous diplomatic initiatives have collapsed in failure.

The Obama administration opposes Assad but wants to shift the focus of fighting from the multi-sided civil war between Assad and his many foes to a campaign against Islamic State, an ultra-hardline jihadist group that controls swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

The ceasefire deal is backed by foreign countries ranging from Assad's ally Iran to Turkey, one of the main supporters of groups fighting to overthrow him.

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