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Supposed Syrian Ceasefire Viewed Skeptically by War-Weary Aid Workers

World leaders have reportedly reached a deal to end fighting in Syria, but in light of the earlier collapse of peace talks in Geneva, humanitarian officials said they will wait to see results on the ground before wholly endorsing the deal.
February 12, 2016, 8:40pm
Photo by Mohammed Badra/EPA

Hours after international powers reached a deal to reportedly begin ending the fighting in Syria, humanitarian officials say the purported cessation of hostilities needs to happen immediately.

The agreement in Munich was reached at a meeting of the International Syria Support Group, and emerged in the early hours of Friday. The ISSG includes the principal backers of Syria's warring parties, including the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Going into the conference, Western countries had insisted that Russia end its bombing campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government — airstrikes that have buttressed sizable regime advances this month in Aleppo governorate. According to American officials, Russia had proposed a ceasefire date of March 1 in the lead up to Munich.

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An ISSG statement released on early Friday included a marginally shorter, if ambiguous timeframe, saying that "an ISSG task force will within one week elaborate modalities for a nationwide cessation of hostilities." Such a break in fighting, along with steps towards transitional government, was first agreed to in principal by the ISSG when it met in Vienna in November, and was endorsed by the UN Security Council the following month.

But prospects for an end to violence in parts of Syria — the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front would not be expected to participate in a ceasefire — was dealt a heavy blow last week when peace talks in Geneva involving regime and opposition representatives let out prior to any negotiations. The opposition and its Western and Gulf backers blamed the Russian-aided Aleppo offensive for its failure.

Related: The UN Says a Syrian Regime Siege of Aleppo Would Be a Total Catastrophe

A massive offensive this month by Assad's military, supported by allied militias and hundreds of Russian sorties, has seen the government nearly encircle the city of Aleppo. More than 50,000 people have fled fighting in Aleppo and moved toward the Turkish border, according to the UN. A further 300,000 inside the city risk being cut off completely from humanitarian aid if regime forces continue their advance.

The fighting and regime gains have broken access to the principal north-south route that humanitarian convoys have used to reach Aleppo. Christy Delafield, a spokesperson for the aid group Mercy Corps, said that the organization's staff within Syria has been able to continue delivering aid to parts of the city through dangerous alternative routes from the west. Two civilians seeking aid were killed this week when an airstrike hit in the vicinity of a Mercy Corp distribution site, she noted.

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"As humanitarians, we need unfettered and sustained access, and that requires a cessation of hostilities by all parties to the conflict," said Delafield. "What we are seeing right now is tens of thousands of people that are desperately looking for a safe place and wondering where their next meal is going to come from. There is no need to wait a week — we need a ceasefire now.

In light of the collapse of the Geneva talks, which were seen as the first test of the ISSG's previous agreement, aid officials said they had to wait for results on the ground before wholly endorsing Friday's deal.

David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, said that the text that was agreed upon in Munich "needs detail and urgency to offer hope to the people suffering sieges inside Syria."

"We wait with eager anticipation to see whether this agreement is a turning point or a false dawn," he added.

Related: More Than a Million Civilians Are Under Siege in Syria, Mostly by Regime, Report Says

Stephen O'Brien, the UN's humanitarian coordinator, said in a statement that parties to the conflict in Syria had to offer "full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access, including to besieged and hard-to-reach areas." More than 480,000 people are classified as besieged, according to UN figures, but other groups have put the number at more than one million.

Outside of Aleppo, the UN and its humanitarian partners have struggled to provide regular aid shipments to besieged communities, including those in the regime surrounded towns of Madaya and Moadamiya, both near Damascus.

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In spite of an aid convoy that reached Madaya on January 11, at least 26 people in the town have died due to malnutrition since the start of the year in the town, and residents say they are once more facing food shortages.

In the predominantly Shia cities of Fuah and Kafreya, rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra Front that surround their communities have "threatened that they would slaughter the villagers in retaliation for Government action against areas under their control," according to a briefing released by the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Thursday.

Even if a cessation of hostilities is enforced, aid workers remain concerned that food could continue to be diverted by warring parties.

According to a statement released by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent, a joint convoy involving both aid organizations reached Moadamiya, where it delivered much need food aid and medical supplies to besieged residents. OHCHR's Thursday briefing reported that the aid had in fact only been "delivered to the pro-Government eastern side of the town," however.

Reached by phone, residents inside Moadamiya confirmed OHCHR's account, and said much of the aid had been captured by militias allied with the Syrian regime.

Follow Samuel Oakford in Twitter: @samueloakford