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US clings to hope of truce as Syria sinks into chaos – Ceasefire in question

ALEPPO: Aid is seen strewn across the floor in the town of Orum al-Kubra on September 20, 2016. —AFP
ALEPPO: Aid is seen strewn across the floor in the town of Orum al-Kubra on September 20, 2016. —AFP

NEW YORK: As Syria plunged back into bloodshed and the UN suspended humanitarian aid convoys yesterday, world powers struggled to convince themselves that a ceasefire can be salvaged.

US Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that US-Russian attempts to broker a truce in the civil war are “not dead” and promised international talks will resume this week. President Barack Obama backed his top diplomat, saying a short time later that there was “no ultimate military victory to be won” and calling on nations to pursue the “hard work” of diplomacy. But Kerry’s terse declaration, after a brief meeting in New York of the International Syria Support Group, could not conceal a pessimistic mood among his fellow foreign ministers.

Kerry arrived for the ISSG meeting with his Russian opposite number and constant sparring partner Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, co-chair of the 23-nation group. Relations between the nominal partners were already at a low ebb after a mistaken US-led coalition air strike on Saturday killed dozens of Syrian soldiers.

Then, on Monday, the negotiations appeared doomed after the Syrian army declared an end to the US-Russian brokered ceasefire and a UN aid convoy was hit in an air strike. But Kerry nevertheless took the opportunity of the ISSG members being gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly to convene crisis talks.

The mood was grim and the brief meeting inconclusive, but it allowed Kerry and UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura a chance to insist that the process has not collapsed. The talks lasted less than an hour and participants said the mood was tense but serious. Kerry’s spokesman John Kirby said the ministers “agreed that, despite continued violence, there was still an imperative to pursue a nationwide cessation of hostilities based on the arrangement reached last week in Geneva between the United States and Russia. “Quite frankly, the Kerry-Lavrov process is the only show in town and we’ve got to get that show back on the road,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said.

His French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault warned that trust was breaking down in the US-Russian partnership and said other countries should help push the process forward. “It was a fairly dramatic meeting, the mood was gloomy. Is there hope? I can’t answer that yet, but we should do everything we can,” he told reporters. “The US-Russian negotiation has reached its limit. There’s a lot left unsaid. The Russians and the Americans can’t do it alone.”

Officials said participants had agreed to reconvene-probably on Friday but analysts warned that more failures would not come without political costs. Without a ceasefire, attempts to deliver aid to starving civilians or to broker a political dialogue will fail. “A failed ceasefire means that the other two prongs of the approach are doomed,” Emile Hokayem from the International Institute for Strategic Studies told AFP.

‘Savage attack’

US officials have demanded that Russia take responsibility for what they said was an air strike on a UN aid convoy near the northern city of Aleppo by either Russian or allied Syrian warplanes. The Russian defense ministry has denied any role in the attack, attempting to point the figure at rebels against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. A short distance across Manhattan at the UN meeting, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced the “sickening, savage and apparently deliberate attack” that left around 20 dead.

And Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier confirmed that it had poisoned the mood at the ISSG, where delegates were “heavy with indignation.” “All were clearly aware of the fact that we find ourselves once more at a threshold for Syria,” he said. “There’s only one viable path for Syria and that is to always make a new effort to reduce violence. In order to achieve this, also the regional powers have to do more.”

Fighting rages
Meanwhile, air raids and shelling continued on frontlines around Syria, where more than 300,000 have died since Assad began efforts to suppress a popular revolt.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 27 barrel bombs crude explosives packed with scraps of metal-were dropped on Aleppo on yesterday. Monday’s strike on the aid convoy provoked outrage from UN officials, with aid chief Stephen O’Brien warning that if deliberate, “it would amount to a war crime”.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said Monday night’s raid destroyed at least 18 of 31 vehicles and a Red Crescent warehouse. “Much of the aid was destroyed,” the IFRC said, stressing that “the attack deprives thousands of civilians of much-needed food and medical assistance.”

Omar Barakat, who headed the local Red Crescent branch, was wounded in the strike and later died, IFRC spokesman Benoit Carpentier told reporters in Geneva. The strike came just hours after the Syrian army announced the end of the truce Monday, accusing rebels of failing to “commit to a single element” of the US-Russia deal.

‘Barrel bombs’
Aleppo residents spent the night huddled in their apartments sharing news via text messages and heard loud intermittent booms early yesterday. The ceasefire was already under strain after a US-led coalition strike on Saturday hit a Syrian army post near the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.

Washington says coalition forces were targeting the jihadist Islamic State group, which is not party to the ceasefire and hit the soldiers, by mistake.-AFP

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