Syrian regime is blocking aid from entering eastern Aleppo, claims UN
Patrick Wintour, Julian Borger, Graun, Sep 13 2016
The first serious hurdle since a ceasefire in Syria came into effect on Monday has emerged after the UN said the regime was not giving permission to allow 20 UN aid trucks into eastern Aleppo. De Mistura said the ceasefire agreement signed last week clearly stated that the government should simply be notified of aid entering the city. As many as 20 trucks are ready to move and the agreed procedure is that the government is given details of the content of the trucks. Syrian government permission or inspections by its officials should not be required. De Mistura said “the trucks are not moving” and implied the Syrian government was in breach of the agreement by refusing to allow unhindered access. “We need to do more homework,” said de Mistura. He urged the eastern Aleppo council to drop any preconditions for the delivery of the aid. Nevertheless, he claimed the first 24 hours of the ceasefire had seen a significant drop in violence, pontificating:
Calm has prevailed!
His remarks will be taken as a coded warning to the Russians to use their influence with the Syrian government to allow the aid trucks into eastern Aleppo on the terms agreed last week after marathon talks between Russia and Pindostan in Geneva. De Mistura insisted the process for eastern Aleppo was different from the rest of Syria, where formal letters of authorisation are required before aid can be delivered. For months, the UN has faced a daily battle to wrest such permissions from the government in a bid to lift the sieges of Syrian towns. In a statement, the Syrian government warned it would not allow Turkish humanitarian aid into Aleppo without its permission. At the same time, opposition groups objected to the Russian presence along the Castello Road, the main supply route into the divided city. Under the agreement, the Russians are supposed to take over some of the checkpoints on the Castello Road. De Mistura said the council should drop its preconditions for aid delivery. A senior Pindi boxtop said:
Neither Syrian government nor Kurdish opposition forces had pulled back from the Castello Road route into eastern Aleppo and that Washington was doing all it could to ensure the UN convoy safe access. We have spent much of today pressing the Russians and, through the Russians, pressing the regime. The UN wanted to make sure the trucks go through unhindered by the regime and unthreatened by the opposition. And we hope to get that done today. If an opposition group decides it doesn’t want to part of the cessation and wants to carry out attacks on the regime, then they take themselves out of the cessation of hostilities.
Earlier, Russia claimed it was abiding by the ceasefire along with the Syrian government, but said the Pindosi government was not acting to rein in its client groups, citing 23 different violations of the terms of the ceasefire. Senior Russian military officer Viktor Poznikhir said in a televised briefing:
Syrian government troops have completely stopped firing, with the exception of areas where Daesh and Nusra are active. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for armed units of the moderate opposition controlled by Pindostan. After the start of the cessation of hostilities by this morning, 23 instances of firing on residential areas and government positions were registered.
The ceasefire agreement for Syria came into force on Monday evening. If it holds for seven days, it is designed to lead to unprecedented joint operations by Russia and Pindostan against the twin targets of Daesh & Nusra. The Syrian government air force would be grounded and debarred from attacking Nusra, the Pindosi government insists. Seeking to address confusion over the role of the Syrian air force under the Pindo-Russian deal, another senior Pindo boxtop said:
For the time being, until we get seven continuous days of reduced violence, the only legitimate targets for anyone – Syrian, Russia or Pindostan – are Nusra and Deash. After that seven days, when the joint implementation centre [JIC] has been established, the regime air force will no longer be able to hit Nusra or opposition areas. (Bear in Mind) that the regime has previously conducted airstrikes against other opposition groups or civilians under the pretext of targeting Nusra. We do need seven days of reduced violence. If that happens again during this period, we will not get to the JIC.
As many as 20 opposition groups have said they will not accept the ceasefire, claiming there is no clear mechanism for punishing breaches. Some are wary of breaking with Nusra. But Anas al-Abdah, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, speaking in London, said he believed the ceasefire would be accepted by most rebel groups. He said:
I think all our troops will go away from Nusra especially in seven days’ time because then Russia and Pindostan co-operating and Nusra becomes a target like Daesh. So our advice to all the troops on the ground is that they make sure they stay away from Nusra as soon as possible.
In televised briefings from various locations around war-torn Syria, Russian military observers said that rebel violations had taken place in the provinces around Aleppo, Latakia, Damascus, Hama, Idlib and Daraa. A Russian military officer said that “new violations” had also occurred around the ravaged city of Aleppo during the day. As the televised briefing cut to a military monitor by the key Castello Road into Aleppo, which has been under Syria regime control, gunfire broke out and the Russian officer dived for cover.
No Civilian Deaths Since Syrian As Ceasefire Brings Calm
Jason Ditz, AntiWar.com, Sep 13 2016
While Syrian rebels were all insisting that the ceasefire would almost certainly fail in short order, a period of relative calm seems to have returned to the country since it went into effect Monday evening, with some stray gunfire here and there, but no major incidents. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights praised the ceasefire as the most successful such effort of the civil war, and noted around noon on Tuesday that not a single civilian death had been confirmed since the ceasefire came into effect. That’s continued to be the case, with Syrian hospitals noting that they have empty beds for the first time in a long while, and that their only patients are sick people this time, not scores of gunshot victims and other casualties of war. The UN likewise confirmed that in the first 24 hours of the ceasefire there had been “dramatic” improvements to the security situation nationwide, and while aid has yet to really start flowing in earnest, there seems to be no real obstacle to those deliveries ramping up. The heaviest reported fighting today was in northern Hama Province, with some Islamist rebels opening fire on army positions around the village of Maan. There were no reports of casualties, however, and it was unclear exactly who these rebels were. The ceasefire is tentatively set to last for seven days, though there appears to be no obstacle to extending it beyond that length. Jackass Kerry suggested that if the ceasefire holds and if the Syrian government doesn’t do any fighting against Nusra, then Pindostan and Russia may launch joint attacks on Nusra.
Strikes on Daesh in Syria may have hit civilians: Pentagon
AFP, Sep 13 2016
WASHINGTON – The Pentagon said Tuesday (Sept 13) it had launched various strikes on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group’s forces in Syria over the past several days, including hits on some targets that “may have resulted in civilian casualties.” The incidents took place on Sep 7, Sep 10 and Sep 12, according to a statement from CENTCOM. It did not give the number of dead or injured. It said that in the Sep 10 raid “near ar-Raqqah, Syria, a strike against a Daesh target may have resulted in the death of civilians near where the strike occurred.” On Sep 7 and Sep 12, raids on Daesh near Dayz’az-Zawr and and Sep 12 hit non-military vehicles that drove into the target areas after the weapons were fired.
As Syria truce holds, Nusra denounces it
Bassem Mroue, AP, Sep 13 2016
BEIRUT – With much of Syria calm for the past 24 hours, Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) sharply criticized the Pindo-Russian-brokered ceasefire, saying Tuesday its real aim was to keep Assad in power. Nusra was in talks with other rebel factions for a possible merger, a move that could dash Washington and Moscow’s hopes of distancing it from the wider insurgency and sabotage the truce. The denunciation of the deal came as activists and state media said the truce, which took effect at sunset Monday, was holding despite some violations. The Syrian army said it would abide by the cease-fire until midnight Sunday, while maintaining its right to defend itself against any violations. The truce excludes Nusra & Daesh. The first week will be crucial. During that time, all fighting between Assad’s forces and the rebels is to stop, although Assad’s forces can continue airstrikes against Nusra & Daesh. If the calm holds for seven days, the Pindosi and Russian militaries would then set up a new center to coordinate strikes against Nusra & Daesh. Nusra’s statement came a day after Syria’s largest insurgent groups expressed misgivings over the deal for excluding them. A truce in February that lasted several weeks also excluded Nusra & Daesh. In its statement, Nusra accused the Pindo-Russian-brokered deal of:
conniving to divide and target them one by one, while distancing Assad’s regime from the battle and preserving him. The aim of the Russian-Pindosi agreement is to defeat Syrian Jihad, break its arm and cut its teeth.
Nusra spox Mostafa Mohamed wrote on his Twitter account:
Let it be known. We don’t take orders from hypocritical tyrants. We will continue in this cause, standing in solidarity with our brothers.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has been working to improve its image and distance itself from AQ. In July, leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani publicly showed his face for the first time in a video in which he announced the group’s name change and said it was cutting ties with AQ. The group has been in talks for weeks to merge with other insurgent groups so that it can market itself as a Syrian faction. Its battlefield alliance with other insurgent groups makes it difficult for Pindostan to target them without the danger of inflicting harm to other opposition groups. A Nusra commander in the northern province of Aleppo told AP that it could announce its merger with the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group “in the near future.” A senior Ahrar al-Sham official also confirmed the talks, saying:
The merger will not be bilateral. … It is a project to unify the factions on the battlefield. If it holds, all factions will melt into one.
Nusra is already part of Jaish al-Fatah, a coalition that includes Ahrar al-Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party. The coalition has been behind stunning attacks in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib in recent months. Fred Hof and Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council wrote last week:
Separating Nusra Front fighters from mainstream rebels will be very difficult … a major near-term challenge is that neither the Nusra Front nor the Assad regime (nor ISIS, for that matter) is strongly motivated to cooperate with a new cessation of hostilities.
The Syrian ceasefire appeared to be holding Tuesday despite sporadic violations. The Syrian Observatory for Human Right, said no-one has been killed or wounded since the truce went into effect. Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist in the southern province of Daraa, said the province was relatively calm apart from four shells falling in rebel-held areas Tuesday afternoon. Syrian state news agency SANA said rebels fired three shells at a government-held neighborhood in Aleppo. It also reported shelling near the Castello road, northwest of the city, and the Ramouseh area in the south, both main arteries leading to Aleppo.
Russia Urges Pindostan to Strike Nusra as ‘Terrorists’
Reuters, Sep 13 2016
MOSCOW — Lavrov on Tuesday urged Pindostan to continue viewing Nusra as a terrorist organisation and to carry out strikes on its positions.Reuters:
I have a very demanding task now: not to let this list be reduced. I have no reason not to trust Jackass Kerry, but what we see on the ground is that the coalition is very reluctant to strike the positions of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Lavrov also said he would demand that the Russia-Pindostan agreement on cessation of hostilities in Syria, reached on Sep 9, be published in full.
Syria ceasefire deal rife with legal, liability questions
Lolita Baldor, AP, Sep 14 2016
WASHINGTON — The deal crafted by Pindostan and Russia to halt the Syrian civil war and focus efforts on rooting out extremists in the country is rife with legal and liability questions that are fueling Pentagon skepticism about military cooperation between the two powers, senior Pindo boxtops said. The first hurdle is that in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, Congress enacted a law prohibiting any military cooperation with Moscow. That means the deal that Jackass Kerry and Sergey Lavrov agreed to last week in Geneva first needs a waiver from Ashtray Carter to be legal. Evelyn Farkas, former Deputy Asst Sec Def now at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said:
We conduct military operations with our allies and partners, and Russia is neither. So it makes this very fraught with all kinds of risk for us, military and political.
Neither Pindo nor Russian boxtops have released the plan, so details are sketchy. The ceasefire took effect at sunset on Monday, with sporadic small violations. It allows Syrian government strikes against Nusra, and the Pindos can continue attacks on Daesh. The Syrian army has said it would abide by the ceasefire, but will defend against any violations. If the ceasefire holds, Pindostan would begin discussions with Russia on the establishment of a joint implementation cell. State Dept spox Toner said he had no estimate on how long it would take to set up the coordination center, but said discussions have been going on for several months, so he didn’t believe it would “be a matter of weeks.” O/C operations in the Middle East, Lt-Gen Jeffrey Harrigian told reporters Tuesday that the intent is to develop a plan that “executes the mission precisely, minimizing risk to the coalition team and civilians on the ground.” He added that it would be important to do it in a way that does not undermine “coalition cohesion” and momentum. Typically comtemptuous:
Clearly there will be some authorities and legalities that we’re going to need to work through to make sure everybody understands what the agreement is. I’m not going to tell you I trust them. We from our side have to do some planning and they need to do the right thing. We’ll see what happens from there.
Nusra’s Ties to Pindo-Backed Syrian Rebels
Gareth Porter, Consortium News, Sep 13 2016
The new ceasefire agreement between Jackass Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, which went into effect at
noon sundown Monday, has a new central compromise absent from the earlier ceasefire agreement they negotiated last February. But it isn’t clear that it will produce markedly different results. The new agreement incorporates a Pindo-Russian bargain: the Syrian air force is prohibited from operating except under very specific circumstances in return for Pindo-Russian military cooperation against Nusra & Daesh. That compromise could be a much stronger basis for an effective ceasefire, provided there is sufficient motivation to carry it out fully. The question is whether the Obama administration is willing to do what would certainly be necessary for the agreement to establish a longer-term ceasefire at the expense of Nusra & Daesh. In return for ending the Syrian air force’s operations, and lifting the siege on the rebel-controlled sectors of Aleppo, Pindostan is supposed to ensure the end of the close military collaboration between the armed groups it supports and Nusra, and join with Russian forces in weakening Nusra. The new bargain is actually a variant of a provision in the Feb 27 ceasefire agreement. In return for Russian and Syrian restraints on bombing operations, Pindostan would prevail on its clients to separate themselves from Nusra. But that never happened. Instead the Pindo-supported groups not only declared publicly that they would not honor a “partial ceasefire” that excluded areas controlled by Nusra, but joined with Nusra and its close ally Ahrar al-Sham in a major open violation of the ceasefire by seizing strategic terrain south of Aleppo in early April.
As the Jackass-Lavrov negotiations on a ceasefire continued, the State Dept hinted that Pindostan was linking its willingness to pressure its Syrian military clients to separate themselves from Nusra in the north-west to an unspecified Russian concession on the ceasefire that was still being negotiated. It is now clear that what Jackass was pushing for was what the Obama administration characterized as the “grounding” of the Syrian air force in the current agreement. Now that it has gotten that concession from the Russians, the crucial question is what the Obama administration intends to do about the ties between its own military clients and Nusra in Aleppo and elsewhere in the north-west. Thus far the primary evidence available for answering that question is two letters from Pindosi envoy to the Syrian opposition Michael Ratney to opposition groups backed by Pindostan. The first letter, sent on Sep 3, after most of the Jackass-Lavrov agreement had already been hammered out, appears to have been aimed primarily at reassuring those Syrian armed groups. As translated by al-Monitor, it asserted:
Russia will prevent regime planes from flying, and this means there will not be bombing by the regime of areas controlled by the opposition, regardless of who is present in the area, including areas in which (Nusra) has a presence alongside other opposition factions.
Ratney confirmed that Pindostan would in return “offer Russia coordination from our side to weaken AQ.” But he also assured Pindo clients that their interests would be protected under the new agreement, by writing:
We believe this ceasefire should be stronger because it should prevent Russia and the regime from bombing the opposition and civilians under the pretext that its striking Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Ratney letter makes no reference to any requirement for the armed opposition to move away from their Nusra allies or even terminate their military relationships, and thus implied that they need not do so. But in a follow-up letter, undated but apparently sent on Sep 10, following the completion of the new Jackass-Lavrov agreement, Ratney wrote:
We urge the rebels to distance themselves and cut all ties with Fateh of Sham, formerly Nusra Front, or there will be severe consequences.
The difference between the two messages is obviously dramatic. That suggests that one of the last concessions made by Jackass in the Sep 9 meeting with Lavrov may have been that a message would be sent to Pindo military clients with precisely such language. The totality of the two letters from Ratney underlines the reluctance of Pindostan to present an ultimatum to its Syrian clients, no matter how clearly they are implicated in Nusra operations against the ceasefire. Last spring, the State Dept never publicly commented on the participation by the Pindo-supported armed groups in the Nusra offensive in violation of the ceasefire agreement, effectively providing political cover for it. The decision by Pindo-supported armed groups in March to defy the ceasefire was taken in the knowledge that Turks, Toads & Qatar had agreed to resupply the Nusra-led commands in the north-west, and had even provided shoulder-fired SAMs to Nusra’s close ally Ahrar al-Sham.
Erdogan’s recent shift in policy toward rapprochement with Russia and his talk of ending the war in Syria are fueled by determination to prevent Syrian Kurds from establishing a unified Kurdistan along the Turkish border. The Wilson Center’s Henry Barkey, a leading specialist on Turkey, told a meeting sponsored by the Middle East Institute last week that Erdogan’s Syria policy is “90% about the Kurds.” But Erdogan does not appear ready to pull the rug out from under Turkey’s client groups in Syria. In fact, Turkey suddenly dialed back its rhetorical shift on Syria in July just when the newly renamed Jabhat Fateh al Sham revealed for the first time that it was about to launch its major offensive for Aleppo. The domestic political context of Pindosi Syrian policy remains strongly hostile to any joint operations with Russia that could affect Pindo-supported anti-Assad clients, even though it is now generally acknowledged that those forces are “marbled” with troops of Al Qaeda’s franchise, especially in Aleppo.
During the spring and summer, Reuters, the WaPo and other media outlets reported a string of complaints from the Pentagon and the CIA about Obama’s plans to reach an agreement with Russia on Syria that would commit Pindostan to cooperate against Nusra. These complaints argued that the Russians could not be trusted and that they intended to target Pindo–supported groups in a proxy war. The real reasons for these attacks on the negotiations with Russia were more parochial. The Pentagon is determined to maintain the line that Russia is a dangerous threat and should be firmly opposed everywhere. The CIA’s clandestine service has long wanted a more aggressive program of military assistance for its Syrian clients, which would be a major CIA covert operation. Thus, even though the new agreement calls for Pindo “coordination” with Russia of air strikes against Nusra, the Obama administration can be expected to raise objections whenever it sees that a proposed operation would come too close to targets associated with its clients. Otherwise, more leaks from opponents of the agreement in the Pentagon and CIA, or even in the State Dept, would surely follow.