The Cable

State Department Denies Abandoning Aleppo in Russian Ceasefire Deal

The United States denied Friday that it was neglecting besieged Syrians in the city of Aleppo after Russian media reports disclosed a U.S.-brokered ceasefire agreement that excluded the partially rebel-held city.

A Syrian boy walks with his bicycle in the devastated Sukari district in the northern city of Aleppo on November 13, 2014, after more than three years of fighting and shelling. Syrians are increasingly unable to escape their country's war as tougher policies in potential host nations are preventing them from taking refuge in the region and beyond. AFP PHOTO / BARAA AL-HALABI        (Photo credit should read BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian boy walks with his bicycle in the devastated Sukari district in the northern city of Aleppo on November 13, 2014, after more than three years of fighting and shelling. Syrians are increasingly unable to escape their country's war as tougher policies in potential host nations are preventing them from taking refuge in the region and beyond. AFP PHOTO / BARAA AL-HALABI (Photo credit should read BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States denied Friday that it was neglecting besieged Syrians in the city of Aleppo after Russian media reports disclosed a U.S.-brokered ceasefire agreement that excluded the partially rebel-held city.

Aleppo has become the main battleground in the the latest flare-up of fighting between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebels seeking to oust him. On Friday, the city in northwest Syria came under another deadly barrage of airstrikes and shelling, including on a mosque and a clinic. The assaults — which involve both regime airstrikes and rebel attacks on pro-government neighborhoods  — have killed 200 people in the last week, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Despite the uptick of violence, the State Department said U.S. officials were unable to negotiate a ceasefire. Instead, Washington and Moscow have agreed to oversee a cessation of hostilities in the northwestern region of Latakia and the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta beginning Friday night.

“The situation around Aleppo is urgent, and so we need to address that, and we have been trying to address that on the ground,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. “This is not part of any acquiescence at all.”

Part of the problem in resuming a ceasefire in Aleppo is the intermingling of rebel forces with members of the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliated group that is not protected under a February 27 cessation of hostilities agreement the United States and Russia helped broker. “There is a Nusra presence in Aleppo,” acknowledged a senior State Department official, who briefed reporters Friday on condition of not being identified by name. “Nobody is saying that there isn’t.”

Still, U.S. officials have tried to pressure Assad’s regime and the Russians to minimize attacks on civilian targets. On Friday, the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières said the death toll from a Wednesday attack on its al-Quds hospital had risen to 50.

“The city, consistently at the front lines of this brutal war, is now in danger of coming under a full offensive. No corner is being spared,” said Muskilda Zancada, the director of MSF in Syria, in a statement.

According to Russian media, the partial ceasefire, or “regime of silence,” will last for 24 hours in Damascus and 72 hours in the province of Latakia. The State Department did not confirm the length of time of the agreement, but officials said the goal was to extend the ceasefire in those areas for as long as possible and eventually include Aleppo in the agreement.

“We are absolutely trying to get a similar commitment in Aleppo — we’re just not there yet,” said Toner.

“A lot of this hinges on the fact that you can separate out and clearly delineate, for lack of a better term, the good guys and the bad guys,” he added.

Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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