ISTANBUL - A Syrian cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia appeared to be generally holding across the war-torn country Wednesday, but aid distribution to besieged towns and areas - a key part of the deal - remains on hold. The Syrian government has insisted any humanitarian assistance to the city of Aleppo has to be coordinated with Damascus.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tried to break the impasse, urging Washington and Moscow Wednesday to push all warring sides in Syria to agree safe passage for desperately needed aid.
“It's crucially important [that] the necessary security arrangements” are agreed, Ban said. “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 ... also fully cooperate.”
But the secretary-general's appeal had little immediate impact. Trucks loaded with a month's food supply for 40,000 people are stuck at the Turkish border, although Russian media report some supplies were distributed in Syrian government-held areas of Homs by Russian forces.
'Significant drop in violence'
Aid agencies say they are waiting in other cases for guarantees of safe passage from not just President Bashar al-Assad’s regime but also from other warring parties. Staffan de Mistura, U.N. special envoy for Syria, told reporters in Geneva, there has been a "significant drop in violence" and that the situation on the ground had “dramatically improved, with no airstrikes."
ut he added that aid has not yet been delivered because the Syrian government hadn't sent a letter of authorization to the U.N., although he said he hoped aid conveys waiting on the Turkish-Syrian border would be able to commence deliveries some time later on Wednesday to the 250,000 civilians estimated to be in rebel-held areas in eastern Aleppo.
Activists, skeptical of the chances of the cease-fire holding, noted to VOA that another cessation of hostilities brokered by Washington and Moscow earlier this year, which lasted for just weeks, also was undermined by the blocking of aid delivery.
“We need to enter an environment where we are not in mortal danger,” Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N.'s humanitarian office [OCHA] said. More than half-million Syrians are estimated by the U.N. to be living in besieged areas.
Small cease-fire violations reported
Since the truce came into effect at sunset on Monday, coinciding with the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, both the rebels and Assad regime and its supporters have accused each other of sporadic violations of the cease-fire — although there have been no reports of any civilian deaths. Russian military officials claim U.S.-backed rebel groups have violated the cease-fire since it went into effect nearly two dozen times on the Castello road, a key route into insurgent-held parts of Aleppo.
A pro-opposition monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said pro-regime forces shelled two villages in Aleppo province and a suburb of Damascus as well as conducting airstrikes in northern Hama province since Monday night.
Rebel factions remain highly skeptical of the U.S.-Russia brokered cease-fire. In a statement after the cessation of hostilities went into effect more than 20 armed rebel factions, including the Washington-backed Free Syrian Army, said they were "fully aware of the trap being set to make us sink in a quagmire of concessions or lead us to infighting that divides our ranks and disunites us.”
Rebel groups have doubts about targets
Rebel groups are also critical of the proposed joint U.S.-Russia targeting of the former al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, arguing "this would weaken the military power of the revolution and strengthen the Assad regime and its allies.”
The chances of the cease-fire holding in many ways rests with what happens to aid deliveries and whether the regime allows humanitarian assistance to be distributed without either blocking it or directing it where it wants the help to go for political purposes, say activists.
The politics of aid in war zones is always complex but it has become especially so with the Syrian conflict where all sides have used aid to further their war aims, although the Assad government is seen by aid agencies as the biggest culprit of all.
Last week, more than 70 NGOs said they would refrain from information sharing with the U.N. because they believe the Assad regime has been allowed to manipulate aid and has too much influence over the $4 billion relief effort. In a joint letter to the organization they said “manipulation of humanitarian relief efforts by the political interests of the Syrian government that deprives other Syrians in besieged areas from the services of those programs.”
Little progress in reaching needy
Relief organizations complain that the U.N. has given contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to associates of the Assad regime, including some who are under U.S. and EU sanctions. According to an investigation by Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Monday U.N.-sponsored aid convoys only reach “on average 33 percent of people to whom access was requested.”
Twenty trucks carrying food and flour entered northern Syria from the Turkish border town of Cilvegozu on Monday, according to Reuters news agency. The aid convoy was not a U.N. one and it was unclear how far into the war-torn country it would be able to go.
The French medical charity Doctors without Borders said Tuesday that there are more than 150 medical facilities that are in urgent need of resupply. They urged all parties to allow the injured to be evacuated. But that is another issue that is likely in the coming days to prove controversial. The Syrian government wants medical evacuees from eastern Aleppo to be evacuated to areas it controls and not be sent to Turkey or to rebel-controlled areas.