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August 23, 2017

Syria truce largely holds, aid preparations underway





By Lisa Barrington  

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A new ceasefire in Syria brought a full day with no combat deaths in the war between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents, a monitoring body said, and efforts to deliver aid to besieged areas got cautiously underway.

Twenty-four hours after the ceasefire took effect, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday that it had received not a single report of combatants or civilians killed by fighting in any areas covered by the truce.

The ceasefire, brokered by the United States and Russia, is supported by countries that back Assad and his opponents and marks the second attempt this year to halt a war that has so far made a mockery of all peace efforts since fighting began more than five years ago.

It also marks the biggest bet yet by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama that it can work with Russia to end a war that President Vladimir Putin transformed a year ago when he sent warplanes to join the fight on Assad’s side.

Outside the scope of the truce, Turkey said airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition had killed three fighters from Islamic State.

Moscow and Washington have agreed to share targeting information for strikes against fighters from Islamic State and the former Syrian branch of al Qaeda, the first time the Cold War foes have fought together since World War Two.

The agreement has been accepted by Assad and, far more reluctantly, by most of the groups that oppose him.

Rebels complain that the deal is skewed in Assad’s favour. But they have little leverage now, as Russian-backed government forces are in their strongest battlefield position since the early months of the war, and civilians in many rebel-held areas are desperate for aid.

The international community’s first goal is to deliver aid to civilians in areas such as the rebel-held half of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the war, which has been divided for years into opposition and government zones and where the opposition area is now under a total blockade.

DRAMATIC IMPROVEMENT

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said the country had seen a significant drop in violence. “Sources on the ground, which do matter, including inside Aleppo city, said the situation has dramatically improved with no air strikes,” he said in Geneva.

Syrian state media said armed groups had violated the truce in a number of locations in Aleppo city and in the west Homs countryside on at least seven occasions on Tuesday.

The Observatory said pro-government forces had shelled near two villages in the south Aleppo countryside and a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Damascus.

But the reports of violence were far less intense than normal. The Russian military, which sent reconnaissance equipment to detect and suppress attempts at violations, said the ceasefire had largely been observed in Aleppo.

Two aid convoys, each of around 20 trucks, crossed into northern Syria from the Turkish border town of Cilvegozu, about 40 km (25 miles) west of Aleppo, a Reuters witness said, although with security a concern it was not clear how far into Syria they would go. A Turkish official said they carried mostly food and flour.

The Syrian government said it would reject any aid deliveries to Aleppo not coordinated through itself and the U.N., particularly from Turkey. The U.N. said its own trucks had not yet entered Syria and that it was still awaiting confirmation that the ceasefire was holding.

“MORTAL DANGER”

“We are waiting for this cessation of hostilities to actually deliver the assurances and the peace before trucks can start moving from Turkey. As I speak, that has not been the case,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in Geneva.

“We need to enter an environment where we are not in mortal danger as humanitarian organisations delivering aid.”

The head of the city council for opposition-held Aleppo expressed concern that planned deliveries would be conducted according to Russian wishes and would not meet the needs of an estimated 300,000 people living there. Brita Hagi Hassan told Reuters the rebel-held part of the city was in dire need of fuel, flour, wheat, baby milk, and medicines.

The council wanted a role in overseeing the deliveries, he added, rejecting any presence of government forces on the road expected to be used to make the deliveries.

The Observatory estimates the death toll since the start of the conflict at around 430,000, in line with U.N. estimates. About 11 million people have been made homeless in the world’s worst refugee crisis.

Israel said its aircraft attacked a Syrian army position after a stray mortar bomb struck the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, a now-routine Israeli response to the occasional spillover from the war. It denied a Syrian claim that a warplane and drone were shot down.

Along with Islamic State, which controls much of eastern Syria and northern Iraq, the truce does not cover Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a group formerly called the Nusra Front which was al Qaeda’s Syria branch until it changed its name in July.

But that group has been playing a key role alongside other rebels in areas like Aleppo, so separating its fighters from those who are protected by the ceasefire may prove to be the most difficult task of the coming days. Rebels say they fear the government or its Russian allies can use the presence of fighters from the former Nusra Front to justify broader attacks.

(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Yesim Dikmen in Istanbul, Tom Perry in Beirut, Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Maria Kiselyova and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Peter Graff; editing by David Stamp)





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