Washington, Moscow extend Syria cease-fire
People gather near burning tyres during a demonstration against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and calling for aid to reach Aleppo near Castello road in Aleppo, Syria, September 14, 2016. REUTERS photoU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov agreed on Sept. 14 that a cessation of hostilities agreement in Syria was holding, and extended it by 48 hours to allow for increased humanitarian access.
“There was agreement that as a whole, despite sporadic reports of violence, the arrangement is holding, and violence is significantly lower,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner was quoted as saying by Reuters during a press briefing.
“As part of the conversation they agreed to extend the cessation for another 48 hours,” Toner added.
Even though the cease-fire deal was holding, the necessary conditions for aid to be delivered to the city of Aleppo weren’t in place. As of the afternoon of Sept. 15, Syrian government forces and rebels had yet to withdraw from a road needed to deliver aid to Aleppo, threatening the most serious international peacemaking effort in months as the sides accused each other of violating a truce.
The aid delivery to rebel-held eastern Aleppo, which is blockaded by government forces, is an important test of a U.S.-Russian deal that has brought about a significant reduction in violence since the cease-fire took effect on Sept. 12.
The U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said the United States and Russia were expected to manage the disengagement of forces from the road, but also criticized Damascus for failing to provide permits needed to make aid deliveries to other areas.
‘20 UN aid trucks waiting at border’
Jan Egeland, head of the United Nations humanitarian taskforce for Syria, said on Sept. 15 that 20 trucks loaded with desperately needed aid for eastern Aleppo had crossed into a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria.
“They’ve been waiting and sleeping at the border now for 48 hours. So they could go on a minute’s notice,” Egeland said, voicing hope the aid could be delivered to eastern Aleppo on Sept. 16.
“Can well-fed grown men please stop putting political, bureaucratic and procedural road blocks for brave humanitarian workers that are willing to go to serve women, children, wounded civilians in besieged and crossfire areas?” he asked.
France, which backs the opposition, became the first U.S. ally to publicly question the deal with Moscow, urging Washington to share details of the agreement and saying it was not credible without aid for Aleppo.
Control of the Castello Road is divided between the government and rebels who have been battling to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for more than five years. It has been a major frontline in the war.
Russia, whose air force helped the Syrian government to blockade opposition-held Aleppo this summer, said on Wednesday it was preparing for the Syrian army and rebel fighters to begin a staged withdrawal from the road.
But on the morning of Sept. 15, both Syrian government and rebel forces were still manning their positions. An official in an Aleppo-based Syrian rebel group said international parties had told him aid was now due to be delivered on Sept. 16.
“Today the withdrawal is supposed to happen, with aid entering tomorrow [Sept. 16]. This is what is supposed to happen, but there is nothing to give hope,” Zakaria Malahifji, of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim, told Reuters.
Egeland said both the rebels and the government were responsible for delaying aid deliveries into Aleppo.
“The reason we’re not in eastern Aleppo has again been a combination of very difficult and detailed discussions around security monitoring and passage of roadblocks, which is both opposition and government,” he said.
About 300,000 people are thought to be living in eastern Aleppo, while more than one million live in the government-controlled western half of the city.
Russia criticizes US
The United States and Russia have backed opposing sides in the Syrian war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forced 11 million from their homes, and created the world’s worst refugee crisis since the World War Two.
Washington hopes the pact will pave the way to a resumption of political talks. But a similar agreement unraveled earlier this year, and this one also faces enormous challenges.
Under the agreement, nationalist rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are supposed to disengage from a group that was known as the Nusra Front until it broke ties with al-Qaeda in July and changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
A Syrian military source said this was not happening. “I believe they want to obstruct the main demand of the Syrian state and leadership, and of Russia - the separation of Nusra from the rest of the organizations, and it appears that this will not happen,” the source said.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has played a vital role in recent fighting around Aleppo. FSA groups are suspicious of the group, which has crushed several nationalist factions. But they have also criticized its exclusion from the cease-fire agreement.
The United States and Russia are due to start coordinating military strikes against the former Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) if all goes to plan under the deal.
But Russia said on Sept.15 the United States was using “a verbal smokescreen” to hide its reluctance to fulfil its part of the agreement, including separating what it called moderate opposition units from terrorist groups.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that only government forces were observing the truce and opposition units “controlled by the U.S.” had stepped up shelling of civilian residential areas.