The Cable

After Weeks of Bloodletting, U.S. Reaches Deal on Cease-fire in Aleppo

After some of the most intense fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels in months, the United States and Russia announced a new cessation of hostilities agreement Wednesday for the city of Aleppo, the site of the most gruesome violence.

ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 3: Jerusalem field hospital is seen as it turns into a wreckage after Assad Regime forces' multiple attacks in Aleppo, Syria on May 3, 2016. Assad Regime's attacks killed last pediatrician and 76 kids last 13 day. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 3: Jerusalem field hospital is seen as it turns into a wreckage after Assad Regime forces' multiple attacks in Aleppo, Syria on May 3, 2016. Assad Regime's attacks killed last pediatrician and 76 kids last 13 day. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

After some of the most intense fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels in months, the United States announced a new cessation of hostilities agreement with Russia Wednesday for the city of Aleppo, the site of the most gruesome violence.

Though intermittent clashes continue, the cease-fire is already resulting in a decrease in violence, said State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner. The cease-fire took effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday in Damascus, and Toner said the U.S. and Russia are working to ensure it is closely monitored.

“Attacks directed against Syria’s civilian population can never be justified, and these must stop immediately,” Toner said in a statement.

The details of the cease-fire agreement and Russia’s level of support for it remain unclear. Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, did not explicitly declare a new agreement, but said Moscow is ready to work with the U.S. to “ensure de-escalation.”

The new truce, if successful, would close a glaring hole in U.S. efforts to reduce violence in Syria after another, partial, cease-fire was announced last Friday in the northwestern region of Latakia and the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta. The most intense violence has been happening in Aleppo, where a combination of regime airstrikes and rebel attacks on pro-government neighborhoods killed 300 people over the last two weeks.

Toner called on Russia to “press for the Assad regime’s compliance with this effort.”

“The United States will do its part with the opposition,” he said.

It has been difficult to maintain a cease-fire in Aleppo, in part due to intermingling between rebel forces and members of the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliated group that is not protected under a Feb. 27 cessation of hostilities agreement the United States and Russia helped broker. “There is a Nusra presence in Aleppo,” a senior State Department official said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Nobody is saying that there isn’t.”

Russia and Syria have maintained the right to target Nusra members in Aleppo. The U.S. says rebels must distance themselves from the al Qaeda affiliate, but has also accused the Assad regime of attacking civilians in Aleppo who should be protected.

The announcement of the new cease-fire follows a bloody 24 hours of fighting in Aleppo that killed “dozens” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said rebels advanced into regime-controlled districts in western Aleppo on Tuesday but were repelled by government forces by Wednesday morning.

U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman welcomed the U.S.-Russian agreement Wednesday at an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, urging the warring “parties to abide by this, immediately and comprehensively.”

“We need to put the cessation of hostilities back on track,” he told the 15-nation council at the meeting, which was convened at the request of Britain and France.

Feltman said the conflict in Aleppo in recent weeks “resembles some of the worst days” of the Syrian war that preceded a shaky pause in the fighting in February and March. He also raised concerns about armed groups engaging in joint military operations with the Nusra Front and other extremist groups, saying it poses a “major challenge to stabilising the situation.”

Aleppo has seen one of the worst campaigns of aerial bombardment since the start of the Syrian civil war, Feltman said.

“I am horrified by the further death and destruction in Aleppo,” added Stephen O’Brien, the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief. He said an estimated 300,000 remain in Aleppo and “live in constant fear over the next attack from the air, including from barrel bombs.”

“Over the past 10 days, indiscriminate attacks and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas by government forces, and by listed terrorist groups have intensified — affecting mostly civilians,” O’Brien told the council.  “There can be no explanation or excuse, no reason or rationale, for waging war on civilians.”

Despite the new agreement between Washington and Moscow, a rift between the two major powers over the five-year Syrian civil war also was exposed during Wednesday’s meeting at the Security Council. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Churkin, agreed the latest truce has resulted in a decrease in the fighting in Aleppo. But they provided sharply differing accounts of who was responsible for the surge in violence.

Power accused Assad’s regime of launching more than 300 airstrikes, 110 artillery strikes, 18 missiles, and dropping at least 68 bombs Aleppo over the last two weeks alone — data she attributed to credible sources on the ground in Syria.

“While all sides have contributed to the violence the military escalation was attributable largely to the actions of a singular party: the Assad regime,” Power told the council. “…All of this while still paying lip service to the cessation of hostilities.”

But Churkin countered that armed Sunni opposition groups, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, have joined forces with the Nusra Front to seize Assad-controlled territory in Aleppo. The rebel offensive, Churkin said, derailed a U.S.-Russian effort to negotiate a pause in fighting.

“We have been promised that the armed units of so called moderate opposition will break off all links with al Nusra,” Churkin said. “This has not occurred so far.”

Churkin also faulted the United States for rebuffing previous attempts to form a joint monitoring team to enforce the cessation of hostilities. Russia, he said, has been seeking since October “to establish this kind of cooperation, and unfortunately it has taken more than six months to achieve.”

“We do hope that this will be an important step in our efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria,” Churkin said.

Photo credit: 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

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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