US says no cooperation with Russia until Syrians get aid

After a fifth day passes with no delivery of aid to starving civilians, the US and Russia start blaming each other and Washington threatens to pull out of the joint mission against ISIL.
A lone rebel fighter walks by damaged buildings near Castello Road  the vital supply road which runs from the Turkish border to  Aleppo, Syria , on September 16, 2016. Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters
A lone rebel fighter walks by damaged buildings near Castello Road the vital supply road which runs from the Turkish border to Aleppo, Syria , on September 16, 2016. Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters

WASHINGTON // Tension between the two authors of the ceasefire in Syria increased on Friday with Russia and America delivering thinly-veiled threats to each other over the stalling of aid deliveries.

In a telephone call to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov the US secretary of state John Kerry made it plain that America would not conduct joint operations with Russia against ISIL and other extremists unless the Syrian regime allowed humanitarian aid into the cities suffering under long-term siege. Mr Kerry said the delays, which have left 40 lorries of vital supplies stuck on the Syria-Turkey border for five days, were “repeated and unacceptable,” and told the Russian foreign minister that Washington “expects Russia to use its influence on the Assad regime to allow UN humanitarian convoys to reach Aleppo and other areas in need.”

Moscow retaliated by casting doubt on Washington’s influence over its allies among the various rebel groups in Syria which were not respecting the ceasefire, whereas Russia’s sole ally – the Syrian government – had stopped all fighting since the truce came into effect last Monday.

Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov accused the US of “playing the role of a passive observer” and failing to exert its influence on the opposition fighters. Syrian government forces would pull back from the battle-lines as soon as the rebels did, he said.

Under the terms of the ceasefire agreement, Russia’s task was to restrain the forces of president Bashar al-Assad’s regime while Washington leans on the rebel groups opposing him. If the truce holds for seven days and access is granted for humanitarian deliveries, Russia and the US will work together on targeting ISIL and Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, the militant group formerly affiliated to Al Qaeda when it was known as Al Nusra Front.

But some clashes have continued, and the United Nations lorries carrying much-needed aid for starving civilians remained stuck for a fifth day with rival factions arguing over permits, itinerary and distribution.

In the Syrian capital, Damascus, rare clashes between government forces and an insurgent group produced some of the heaviest fighting seen in weeks, which was audible throughout the city. In Aleppo, the Syrian government blamed a rocket attack which damaged a church on the opposition. The opposition accused the Syrian army of bombarding several areas across the country, including Idlib province in the north.

According to the Russian military, Syrian troops withdrew briefly from the Castello Road – the main artery into rebel-held part of Aleppo – to make way for aid convoys, and state-run Syrian TV said bulldozers removed some of the sand and cement barriers. But Russian officials said the Syrian army on Friday moved its heavy weapons back to the road, after the opposition failed to withdraw their arms simultaneously.

After Russia suggested on Friday that the ceasefire be prolonged for a further 72 hours, the response from Washington indicated dwindling patience.

The Pentagon announced it was sending dozens of special operations forces to Syria to fight alongside the Turkish military and certain “vetted” Syrian rebel roups against ISIL. The request for the extra US forces had come from Turkey, said Pentagon spokesman Adrian Rankine-Galloway.

His colleague, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said the American special forces would provide the same training, advice and other assistance that the US has been giving to other Syrian opposition groups – such as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces – which are fighting ISIL in northern Syria. The Americans will be stationed just south of the Turkish border between the towns of Jarabulus – recently liberated by the Turkish army from ISIL control – and Al Rai.

As air strikes and clashes continued to test the fragile ceasefire, another Friday passed with no end to the suffering and hardship of desperate civilians.

The UN security council was due to meet in the evening to discuss whether to endorse the truce, billed as the “last chance” to end the five-year war.

* Agencies

Published: September 16, 2016 04:00 AM

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