Syria Ceasefire Deal in Balance as Aleppo Aid Plan Stalls

Children with cans line up for water in Nubel, north of Aleppo. (File Photo)Children with cans line up for water in Nubel, north of Aleppo. (File Photo)

Russia said the Syrian Army had begun to withdraw from a road into Aleppo on Thursday, a prerequisite for pressing ahead with international peacemaking efforts as the government and militants accused each other of violating a truce.

An organization that monitors the war also said the Syrian Army had begun moving away, but insurgent groups in Aleppo said they had not seen the army withdrawing from Castello Road, needed to allow aid deliveries into the city and would not pull back from their own positions near the road until they did, Reuters reported.

The Pentagon said it could not confirm reports of a withdrawal but US State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said the ceasefire was holding “by and large”, adding both Washington and Moscow believed it was worth continuing.

But there were growing accusations of violations by each side, with a Syrian military source saying the militants were responsible for dozens of breaches, including gun, rocket and mortar fire in Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Latakia. The militants said Syrian Army jets had struck in Hama and Idlib, and used artillery near Damascus.

 Reciprocal Attacks

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said it had documented attacks by both sides, and that despite widespread calm between militants and the army, the first civilians had been killed since the truce began on Monday.

Two civilians killed on Thursday were children in government-held areas, one in Aleppo and the other in Syria’s southwest, it said. In addition, airstrikes against the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group in the town of al-Mayadin near Deir al-Zor had killed at least 23 civilians, it said.

Control of Castello Road is divided between the government and terrorists who have been battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad for more than five years. It has been a major frontline in the war.

“The Syrian Army ... began the staged withdrawal of vehicles and personnel from the Castello Road to ensure the unimpeded delivery of aid to eastern Aleppo,” said Lieutenant-General Vladimir Savchenko, head of the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria, in remarks broadcast on state television.

The observatory said the army had started to withdraw from positions on the road, but that Russian troops, whose air force has helped Damascus blockade militant-held Aleppo, had replaced it.

Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian adviser, said both the militants 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 1 million live in the government-controlled western half of the city.

 Aid Convoys Delayed

Two convoys of aid for Aleppo have been waiting in no-man’s land to proceed to Aleppo after crossing the Turkish border.

If a green light was given, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said, the first 20 trucks would move to Aleppo and if they reached the city safely, the second convoy would then leave.

The two convoys were carrying enough food for 80,000 people for a month, he added.

Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the war, has been a focal point of the conflict this year. Government forces backed by militias from Iraq and Lebanon have recently achieved their long-held objective of encircling the militant-held east.

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.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gannady Gatilov said talks could resume at the end of September, but this was rejected by George Sabra, an opposition negotiator, who said conditions on the ground were not yet good enough.

The United States and Russia are due to start coordinating military strikes against IS and a group formerly known as the Nusra Front if all goes to plan under the deal.