Syria ceasefire near collapse

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Children walk near damaged buildings in rebel-held Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria September 17, 2016. Picture taken September 17, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
By Tom Perry | BEIRUT

BEIRUT A week-old Syrian ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia was in deep trouble on Monday as a rebel official said it had practically failed and signaled insurgents were preparing for a full resumption of fighting.

Already widely violated since it took effect, the ceasefire came under added strain at the weekend when Russia said jets from the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers in eastern Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the incident “flagrant aggression”. Washington has called it a mistake.

The agreement is the second ceasefire negotiated by Washington and Moscow this year in the hope of advancing a political end to a war now in its sixth year, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

But while it has led to a significant reduction in fighting over the past week, violence has been increasing in recent days. A planned delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo – one of the first steps in the deal – has been repeatedly postponed.

Plans to evacuate several hundred rebels from the last opposition-held district of Homs city have also overshadowed the agreement, with rebels saying it would amount to the government declaring the ceasefire over. The Homs governor said the plan had been postponed from Monday to Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the ceasefire was “holding but fragile”. If the truce were to collapse, it could doom any chance of President Barack Obama’s administration negotiating a Syria breakthrough before it leaves office in January.

Kerry overcame scepticism of other administration officials to hammer out the ceasefire, gambling on cooperation with Russia despite the deepest mistrust in decades between the Cold War-era superpower foes. Washington and Moscow back opposite sides in the war between Assad’s government insurgents, while both oppose the Islamic State jihadist group.

The politburo chief of one prominent Aleppo rebel group, Fastaqim, said the agreement had “practically failed and has ended”, adding that it remained to be seen if anything could be done “in theory” to save it.

Zakaria Malahifji, speaking to Reuters from the Turkish city of Gaziantep, also indicated rebel groups were preparing for combat: “I imagine in the near future there will be action by the factions”.

Another rebel official also signaled the insurgents might soon step up military action.

Abu al-Baraa al-Hamawi, commander of a group fighting in the Jaish al-Fatah Islamist alliance, said it was time for a new attempt “to break the siege on thousands of civilians in Aleppo after the false promises of aid deliveries from the United Nations”.

Monitors reported clashes in and around Aleppo on Monday. The government blamed some of the violence on an what it said was an insurgent assault, but another rebel official denied they had yet launched new attacks.

The opposition High Negotiations Committee spokesman Riad Nassan Agha said the government side had never committed to the truce.

“Air raids by Russian and Syrian warplanes, which haven’t stopped, suggest the truce never started in the first place,” he said.

The Syrian army meanwhile had yet to announce any extension of the seven-day ceasefire it declared on Sept. 12, which was due to expire at 11:59 p.m. (2059 GMT) on Sunday, according to the statement issued by the army command when the truce was announced.

U.N. OFFICIAL “PAINED” AT ALEPPO AID FAILURE

The U.S.-Russian deal set out steps including a nationwide ceasefire, aid deliveries, and joint U.S.-Russian targeting of jihadists including Islamic State and a faction formerly affiliated to al Qaeda.

Washington hopes it will lead to talks on ending a war that has splintered Syria, uprooted 11 million people and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.

But the ceasefire deal has faced enormous challenges from the outset, including how to disentangle nationalist rebels backed by the West from jihadists not covered by the truce.

And there has been no sign of compromise on the issue at the heart of the war: the future of Assad, who enjoys firm Iranian and Russian military backing that is buttressing his strongest military position in years. The dispute over his fate has made a mockery of all previous diplomatic efforts to end the fighting.

The last ceasefire, reached in February, unraveled over a period of weeks as fighting intensified, particularly in and around Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the war and now potentially the biggest prize for pro-government forces.

The U.N. aid chief said an aid convoy destined for rebel-held eastern Aleppo was still stuck in Turkey.

“I am pained and disappointed that a United Nations convoy has yet to cross into Syria from Turkey, and safely reach eastern Aleppo,” the U.N. Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien said in a statement.

The United Nations says it still lacks sufficient security guarantees from both sides to deliver aid to eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held half of the city, which pro-government forces completely encircled this month.

Up to 275,000 people remain trapped in eastern Aleppo without food, water, proper shelter or medical care, he added.

U.N. officials have blamed Damascus for blocking aid deliveries to other besieged, rebel-held areas.

Aid was delivered to the besieged town of Talbiseh in Homs province later on Monday, the Red Cross said, for the first time since July. The convoy brought in food, water and hygiene supplies for up to 84,000 people, it said.

The air strike on a Syrian army position by the U.S.-led coalition on Saturday triggered a fierce war of words between Washington and Moscow, with Russia saying it put the agreement under threat.

A U.S. official said the U.S. military believed reports that about 60 Syrian troops were killed. Two Danish F-16 fighter jets and Australian aircraft took part in the raid.

The United States relayed “regret” about the unintentional loss of life. The Danish defense minister said on Monday “more credible sources” than just the Russian account were needed before he could draw conclusions.

President Assad said the strikes were an act of “flagrant aggression” and showed that the United States and other countries opposing him were “increasing support for terrorists” and seeking to fuel the war.

HOMS EVACUATION

The Syrian government and its allies have mostly focused their firepower on western areas of the country that are of greatest significance to Assad, including the main cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Tartous and Aleppo.

The planned evacuation of several hundred rebels from the last opposition-held district of Homs, al-Waer, has also endangered the deal. Rebels said that plan would amount to the government declaring the truce over.

The Homs governor Talal Barazi said the evacuation had been postponed due to “logistical obstacles”, and negotiating committees were completing the preparations, state TV reported. He told journalists it would take place on Tuesday morning.

Barazi said on Sunday that 250-300 rebels were due to be evacuated from Waer, on Monday. The opposition says such evacuations are part of a government strategy to forcibly displace its opponents after years of siege and bombardment.

The government has been seeking to conclude local agreements with rebels in besieged areas to give them safe passage to the insurgent stronghold of Idlib in northwestern Syria.

(Additional reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen, John Davison, Lisa Barrington and Ellen Francis in Beirut and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Peter Graff)