US, Russia work to hold fragile Syria ceasefire together

Washington and Moscow used a joint statement to show they’re still committed to resuming peace talks to end Syria’s civil war despite differences

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The United States and Russia worked Monday to hold together a revived truce in Syria, calling on both Syria’s government and opposition groups to restrain themselves even as a five-day ceasefire in the northern city of Aleppo was set to expire.

The chief architects of the fragile truce, Washington and Moscow used a joint statement to show they’re still committed to resuming peace talks to end Syria’s civil war, despite unmitigated differences over a role for Syrian President Bashar Assad in a future government.

“The Russian Federation and United States are determined to redouble efforts to reach a political settlement of the Syrian conflict,” according to a joint US-Russian statement published by the Russian foreign ministry.

To this end, Russia “will work with the Syrian authorities to minimize aviation operations over areas that are predominantly inhabited by civilians or parties” to the ceasefire, it said.

Russia, Assad’s close ally, said it would work with the Syrian government to minimize flights over civilian areas where opposition groups and rights activists have claimed that Syria’s military has violated the cease-fire.

The display of unity came as leaders of nations supporting the Western-backed opposition coalition gathered in Paris to meet with the coalition’s head, Riad Hijab, in a bid to keep the cease-fire alive and relaunch faltering peace talks.

The French foreign minister meanwhile described the joint US-Russia statement on Syria as “positive” and said it must be implemented by everybody.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said all parties had to press the sides they back to turn “words on a piece of paper” into actions to reinstate the truce.

Kerry was attending the meeting alongside representatives of Britain, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and the European Union.

In their statement, the US and Russia also said they are also committed to developing a “shared understanding” of where ISIS and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front hold territory.

The groups are excluded from the ceasefire, meaning continuing Syrian and Russian strikes against them don’t technically breach the agreement.

Yet in many places those groups are fighting alongside Western-backed rebels, leading to accusations of violations that allowed the ceasefire to slowly unravel.

The US and Russia have been working to put the truce back together, and in particular to extend it to areas where heavy fighting has broken out, including Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

Yet in a reminder of the ongoing violence, there were reports of multiple air raids on a rebel-held area and shelling of government-controlled parts of Aleppo on Monday, two opposition monitoring groups said.

Those came a day after opposition fighters shelled the government-held neighborhood of Midan, killing a child, according to state media and activists.

Aleppo truce extended by 48 hours

A truce in Aleppo in northern Syria between regime forces and rebels that was due to expire late Monday has also been extended by 48 hours, the army command said.

“The ‘regime of silence’ in Aleppo and its province has been extended by 48 hours from Tuesday 01:00 am (local time) to midnight on Wednesday,” a statement said.

The temporary truce, initially for two days and then prolonged until Tuesday at 00:01 am (21:01 GMT Monday), was decided after fighting killed nearly 300 people since April 22 in Aleppo, where some areas are held by rebels and others by government forces.

Russia and the United States also agreed to extend a truce across the whole of the country.

Clashes in Damascus

Syrian government forces and their allies shelled rebel-held areas in Damascus’s eastern outskirts on Monday and clashed with insurgents in the area, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Mortar fire wounded nearly 20 people, some very seriously, around the town of Arbin in the Eastern Ghouta area, and shelling close to nearby Douma killed at least one person, the British-based monitoring group reported.

The latest clashes were a significant escalation in fighting in Eastern Ghouta, where the army had last week declared a temporary but now-defunct cessation of hostilities, Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said.

Some rebel groups have in recent weeks been fighting among themselves in the area.

Aleppo clashes

Syrian government forces and their allies also clashed with insurgents near Aleppo on Monday and warplanes launched more raids around a strategic town Islamist rebels seized last week, a monitoring group said.

The capture of Khan Touman was a rare setback for government forces in Aleppo province in recent months, and for allied Iranian troops who suffered heavy losses in the fighting.

Warplanes continued to strike around the town on Monday, and had carried out more than 90 raids in the area since Sunday morning, the Observatory said.

Al Manar television, run by Damascus’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah, said troops had destroyed a tank belonging to insurgents and killed some its occupants.

Khan Touman lies just southwest of Aleppo city, which is one of the biggest strategic prizes in a war now in its sixth year, and has been divided into government and rebel-held zones through much of the conflict.

Russia’s military intervention last September has helped President Bashar al-Assad reverse some rebel gains in the west of the country, including in Aleppo province.

The Observatory said warplanes struck rebel-held areas of the city early on Monday, and rebels fired shells into government-held neighborhoods, despite a Russian-announced extension of a truce encompassing the city of Aleppo.

Ayrault said Syrian government forces and their allies had bombarded hospitals and refugee camps.

“It is not Daesh (ISIS) that is being attacked in Aleppo, it is the moderate opposition,” he said.

Ayrault said Monday’s meeting would call on Russia to put pressure on Assad to stop the attacks, adding that humanitarian aid must be allowed to reach those in need.

“Talks must resume, negotiations are the only solution,” he said on radio RTL, ahead of a meeting of ministers from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Britain. Also attending was Riad Hijab, chief coordinator of the main Syrian opposition negotiating group.

The surge in bloodshed in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the civil war, wrecked a February "cessation of hostilities" agreement sponsored by Washington and Moscow. The deal excluded Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front.

Peace talks in Geneva between government delegates and opposition figures, including representatives from rebel groups, broke up last month without significant progress.

(With Reuters, AP)