Russia urges Syrian rebels to separate from ‘terrorists’
Kerry, Lavrov agree to extend truce by 2 days
BEIRUT — Russia said Wednesday that separating Syrian rebels from “terrorists” is a “key task” to ensure that the Russia-U.S.-brokered cease-fire continues to hold in Syria, where a relative calm has prevailed since the truce went into effect two days ago.
Russian Lt. Gen. Victor Poznikhir said rebels had violated the truce 60 times since it came into force at sunset Monday. For their part, opposition forces said they had recorded some 28 various violations by government troops Tuesday.
The cease-fire deal was reached over the weekend after marathon negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Underscoring the complexity of the new arrangement, the deal was not made public in its entirety even as it came into effect.
By evening Wednesday, there were no reports of major violations of the agreement, which calls on all parties to hold their fire, allowing only for airstrikes against the extremist Islamic State group and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
One of Syria’s most powerful factions, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s battlefield alliance with other insurgent groups makes it difficult for the United States to target them without the danger of inflicting harm on other opposition groups.
Kerry spoke to Lavrov on Wednesday and they agreed that “as a whole, despite sporadic reports of violence, the arrangement is holding Syrian rebels patrol last month in Jarablus. Turkey and rebels ousted the Islamic State from the town recently. and violence is significantly lower,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. The two diplomats also agreed to extend the current truce by another 48 hours, Toner said.
Earlier, Russia’s Poznikhir had underlined Moscow’s intention to extend the cease-fire by 48 hours. The Syrian government has already agreed to maintain the cease-fire until Sunday.
The agreement is also to allow for humanitarian aid to reach besieged areas, with the rebel-held part of the northern city of Aleppo as a priority.
However, some 20 trucks carrying U.N aid and destined for rebel-held eastern Aleppo remained in the customs area on the border with Turkey on Wednesday “because of lack of de facto assurances of safe passage by all parties,” said Jens Laerke, deputy spokesman for the U.N. office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The trucks are carrying mostly food items, and are destined for the estimated 250,000 residents of eastern Aleppo. Details of who is to distribute the aid were being worked out.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said humanitarian aid to Syrians was being held up by a lack of security arrangements. He said he had been in touch with the Russian government, urging them to exercise influence on the Syrian government to let the trucks in, and with the Americans to get Syrian armed groups to cooperate.
Separately, Turkey sent a pair of trucks to the Syrian border town of Jarablus to deliver food and toys on the third day of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.
In besieged rebel-held Aleppo, attorney Mohammed Khandakani, 28, said calm was prevailing in an area that had seen some of the heaviest violence in the days leading up to the ceasefire.
“The truce is holding. There is relative relief. It is an unexplainable feeling of safety,” he said. “But the anticipation and concern for the future leaves a lump in my throat. We are still living in a prison.”
Khandakani is a volunteer at a medical center in eastern Aleppo. Medical facilities in rebel-held areas have been frequent targets for government bombings.
In the lead-up to the cease-fire, 40 days of fighting in Aleppo killed nearly 700 civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.