Russia and Syrian rebels cast doubt over the prospects for an increasingly shaky five-day-old ceasefire on Saturday, with Moscow saying the situation was worsening and a senior insurgent warning that the truce “will not hold out”.
The ceasefire is the result of an agreement between Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with air power, and the United States, which supports some rebel groups. It has reduced the fighting since coming into effect on Monday. However, some violence has persisted across Syria, and promised aid deliveries to besieged areas remain blocked, with both sides accusing the other of bad faith.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said conditions in Syria were deteriorating, adding that it believed the ceasefire had been breached 199 times by rebels and saying the United States would be responsible if it were to collapse. Earlier on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin cast doubt over Washington’s commitment to the deal, but also said he believed that securing a ceasefire was a common goal for the two countries, which both agreed to extend it on Friday.
Insurgents say they only reluctantly accepted the initial deal, which they believe is skewed against them, because it could relieve the dire humanitarian situation in besieged areas they control, and blamed Russia for undermining the truce.
“The truce, as we have warned, and we told the (US) State Department – will not hold out,” the rebel official said, pointing to the continued presence of a UN aid convoy at the Turkish border awaiting permission to travel to Aleppo.
“It is not possible for the party (Russia) that wages war against a people to strive to achieve a truce, as it is also not possible for it to be a sponsor of this agreement while it bombs night and day, while on the other side, the other party – America – has the role of spectator,” he said.
Moscow has itself accused rebels of breaking the truce and said Washington needs to do more to make them abide by its terms, including separating from the jihadist Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which only broke formal allegiance to al Qaeda in July.
The five-year-old civil war has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s population, drawing in global and regional powers, causing an international refugee crisis and inspiring jihadist attacks around the world.
Both sides have accused the other of being responsible for aid deliveries being stuck far from Aleppo, where army and rebel forces were supposed to pull back from the Castello Road which leads into besieged, insurgent-held eastern districts.
Russia on Friday said the Syrian army had initially withdrawn but returned to its positions after being fired on by rebels, who in turn say they saw no sign of government forces ever leaving their positions.
“There is no change,” said Zakariya Malahifji, an official for a rebel group in Aleppo on Saturday, asked whether there had been any move by the army to withdraw from positions along the road.
Syria’s government said it was doing all that was necessary for the arrival of aid to those in need it in all parts of the country, particularly to eastern Aleppo.
Two convoys of aid for Aleppo have been waiting at the Turkish border for days. The UN has said both sides in the war are to blame for the delay of aid to Aleppo, where neither has yet withdrawn from the Castello Road into the city.
But senior UN officials have accused the government of not providing letters to allow convoys to reach besieged areas in Syria. The government said the road was being fired on by rebels, which they deny, so it could not give convoys a guarantee of safety.
Warplanes strafed or bombed rebel-held areas in the northwestern province of Idlib, as well as positions north of the city of Homs and east of the city of Hama overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The Britain-based war monitoring group also reported clashes between the army and rebels or shelling overnight in the capital’s Eastern Ghouta suburbs, in Ramousah south of Aleppo and in the southern province of Deraa.
Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebels are pushing south in northern Syria from the towns of al-Rai and Azaz towards the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab, supported by tanks and jets, security sources said, clashing with the jihadist group. Vehicles were mobilised in northern Syria across from the Turkish village of Arapakesmez from the early hours of the morning and Turkish artillery deployed at the border have fired at Islamic State targets.
CNN Turk footage showed white smoke rising from across the border in Syria as Turkish howitzers fired west of al-Rai, where the Syrian Observatory said Free Syrian Army rebel groups gained control of two villages. If the ceasefire deal is successful, Moscow and Washington will start to share targeting information on militant groups, including Islamic State, they have said.