Image: Turkish customs officers walk in front of the Turkish Cilvegozu border gate, located opposite the Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa, in Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
By Osman Orsal and John Davison
CILVEGOZU, Turkey/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Two convoys of aid for the Syrian city of Aleppo were waiting in no-man’s land on Wednesday after crossing the Turkish border, held up by security fears and disagreements between combatants on the third day of a ceasefire.
The convoys, each of around 20 trucks carrying mostly food and flour, set off from the Turkish border town of Cilvegozu, 40 km (25 miles) west of Aleppo, on Tuesday but made it little further than the Turkish customs post on the Syrian border.
The delay was a sign of the difficulties facing the ceasefire, brokered by the United States and Russia on Friday with the aim of reviving talks on ending Syria’s civil war.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through contacts on the ground, said it had recorded no deaths during the first 48 hours of the ceasefire, which came into effect on Monday night, although six civilians had died in Syrian strikes on hardline Islamists excluded from the truce.
On Wednesday evening, the U.S. State Department said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov had agreed it was holding and to extend it by 48 hours, part of a step-by-step process envisaged by the deal.
Russia said it was preparing for the Syrian army and rebel fighters to begin a staged withdrawal from an Aleppo road expected to be used for aid deliveries on Thursday.
Zakaria Malahifji, of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim, told Reuters that rebel groups intend to comply with the plan to withdraw 500 metres from the Castello Road in order to make it a neutral space, but the government must also pull back.
The aid is badly needed. The United Nations estimates that well over half a million people are living under siege in Syria, whose five-year conflict has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than 11 million.
On Wednesday, both Moscow and Washington spoke positively about the deal, with the Kremlin saying it raised hopes for a peaceful solution to the crisis and Kerry arguing it was a “last chance” to keep Syria together.
However, a prominent opposition politician, George Sabra, said the many violations which marked a previous truce had undermined confidence in this one and it was too early to talk about a resumption of peace talks that were abandoned in April.
Speaking to Reuters, he lamented a lack of mechanisms to enforce the ceasefire and accused the government and its allies of committing minor violations “to impede the other goals of the truce, such as delivering necessary aid to besieged areas”.
The Syrian army has meanwhile accused rebels of numerous violations since the ceasefire took effect.
The Russian military, in comments carried by Interfax, said there had been 60 such violations, adding that most were the work of Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist rebel group which Moscow says has not accepted the ceasefire.
The international community’s first goal is to get aid to Aleppo, the scene of Syria’s fiercest fighting in recent months and divided into sectors held by the government and insurgents.
Aided by Russian air power and Shi’ite militias, the Syrian army this month renewed its siege on rebel-held eastern Aleppo, home to at least 250,000 people. Capturing the opposition-held area of Syria’s biggest city would be a major boost for President Bashar al-Assad’s war effort.
“READY TO GO”
“Things are taking longer than we’d hoped,” David Swanson, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told Reuters. He said 20 U.N. trucks were waiting at the border “ready to go”.
Disagreements between the warring sides were blocking aid getting into opposition-held eastern Aleppo, Swanson added. “Some groups are looking to gain political mileage out of this, and this is something we need to put aside,” he said.
A second U.N. official said that deliveries to Aleppo had to cross numerous checkpoints operated by both opposition and government forces, and it was still unclear whether the aid could get through safely.
But the opposition’s Sabra blamed Damascus, saying the government’s insistence on controlling aid was obstructing its delivery to Aleppo under the agreement.
The Syrian government has said it will reject any aid deliveries to the city not coordinated through itself and the United Nations, particularly from Turkey, which has backed the rebels fighting Assad.
The United Nations says it must get permission for most of its aid deliveries from Damascus. The United Nations has repeatedly criticised the Syrian government for restricting access, especially to besieged areas, and for removing vital items from convoys.
As a result, most supplies to opposition-held areas are delivered across rebel controlled border points, sidestepping government approval.
That allows them to bring in supplies despite the political constraints, but exposes them to greater danger and still does not address the suffering of those in inaccessible, heavily besieged areas which the United Nations aims to reach through the truce.
“I have been urging the Russian government to make sure that they exercise influence on the Syrian government and also the American side to make sure that Syrian armed groups they also fully cooperate,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
The ceasefire has drastically reduced fighting across the country between Syrian government forces and insurgents. But a similar truce in February gradually broke down and violence escalated sharply, particularly around Aleppo.
The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said on Tuesday the United Nations was still waiting for Damascus to issue letters authorising aid deliveries. A Turkish official said no further trucks were expected to cross the border on Wednesday until the situation became clearer.
Swanson said the United Nations was also ready to deliver aid to “other besieged and hard-to-reach locations … but only once access is possible”.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Yesim Dikmen in Istanbul, Ellen Francis and Lisa Barrington in Beirut and Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Giles Elgood)
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