After nearly two weeks of brutal shelling and urban combat left hundreds of people dead in the Syrian city of Aleppo, Russia and the United States declared a tentative truce in the city on Wednesday.
"Today there was no bombing, at least in our area," an Aleppo doctor who asked to be identified as Abu Luay told VICE News just hours after the announcement. Speaking via a messaging app, he said his colleagues at the hospital were relieved at the halt in the fighting.
"Part of the staff had been working in another location over the past few days," Luay said. "The maternity unit had moved to another area where they could work in a basement, but today they came back."
Like much of the war-torn country, Aleppo is divided. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad control the western half of the city, while mixed rebel factions hold the east. Areas around the city have periodically changed hands, and the regime's recent gains have put it within striking distance of totally besieging the rebel-held east. But forces within the city have been locked in a stalemate for almost four years. Snipers hunt in the no man's lands that divide the city, both sides lob shells across the front lines, and regime airstrikes have reduced much of the east to rubble.
Medical facilities and personnel have borne the brunt of the fighting. Last week, a series of airstrikes hammered the Doctors Without Borders-supported al-Quds Hospital in the eastern half of Aleppo, killing more than 50 civilians, including hospital staff and patients. Three others were reportedly killed and more than a dozen wounded when shells struck the al-Dabit Hospital in the western half of the city on Tuesday.
The US government and the Syrian regime offered conflicting statements on the timing of the truce. US State Department spokesperson said Wednesday that the truce had gone into effect that day at 12:01am local time. The Syrian military, meanwhile, said the truce would go into effect at 1:00am Thursday and only last for 48 hours. Pockets of fighting persisted in various areas on Wednesday.
"The regime can't be trusted," Abu Luay said. "But at least the pace or the intensity of it might be less if there's something signed."
State Department spokesperson Mark Toner admitted to reporters Wednesday that the truce is tenuous. "This all hinges on the idea that we as well as the Russians can influence the main combatants on the ground to uphold a cessation of hostilities," he said.
'The regime can't be trusted. But at least the pace or the intensity of it might be less if there's something signed.'
Violence in Aleppo intensified in late April and early May as a fragile nationwide ceasefire brokered by Russia and the US came apart. Over the past week and a half, the air above the city has thickened with mortar fire, rockets, and aerial bombing.
A local doctor who uses the name Abu al-Izz described how he and his team had desperately worked to save colleagues who had been caught in the bombing of al-Quds Hospital last week. Rescue workers had barely finished digging bodies out of the rubble on Wednesday.
"It was extremely difficult, because our colleagues — the doctors, nurses, the medical staff — we saw them all wounded and we had to give them emergency care," the doctor said. "We were imagining that those could be us, that we might need someone to treat us — and maybe, if we were wounded or our hospital was bombed, we wouldn't find anyone."
Because of the destructive power of the Syrian government's air force and artillery, more civilians have been killed in the eastern rebel-held side of the city than in the regime-controlled west. But for those living in the west, rebel shelling has also been terrifying and deadly. On Tuesday, 19-year-old Omar hid in a hallway as mortar fire rained down near the campus of Aleppo University, where he studies IT. A few of his friends were hit by what he says were stray "explosive bullets", but he escaped unscathed. When the barrage died down, he sprinted for his life from the school.
"I never thought I could run so fast," he said.
Rebel and regime representatives consistently deny responsibility for civilian casualties. Opposition fighters told VICE News that they strike legitimate targets and rejected the idea that their use of improvised weaponry was inherently indiscriminate.
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Abu Yousef al-Muhajir, military spokesperson for the opposition faction and Islamist movement Ahrar al-Sham, acknowledged that rebels were mostly using locally manufactured mortars and "hell cannons" — rockets made from propane tanks packed with explosives. But he denied ever targeting civilians.
"Our bombing is on the regime's military areas," he insisted.
"It's very possible that some of the shells could have been sent from the regime itself," said Abu Yasir, a spokesperson for the Aleppo faction the Levant Front, when asked about civilian casualties in the regime-held west. He said his group receives some support from a joint operations center in Turkey that includes personnel from the United States and other allied countries.
Russia's government has also denied responsibility for bombing the al-Quds Hospital. On Wednesday, a Russian military spokesperson claimed that the bombing didn't even take place, asserting that the hospital had been destroyed months earlier despite the fact that Doctors Without Borders (also known as Medecins Sans Frontires or MSF) has released photos and videos that clearly document the assault on the hospital. US Secretary of State John Kerry implied that Syrian government forces were responsible for the bombing.
"It appears to have been a deliberate strike on a known medical facility," Kerry said, "and follows the Assad regime's appalling record of striking such facilities and first responders."
Both sides are using weapons that seem to guarantee collateral damage.
The regime lacks precision weapons and relies largely on conventional explosives and crude bombs. Such weaponry virtually assures a "large number of civilian casualties and the mass destruction," according to Wael Aleji, a representative of the UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights. The use of such outdated technology, he said, is by its nature "bombing indiscriminately." Aleji stressed that the regime was responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties in Syria.
As for rebel shelling of western Aleppo, "it's very difficult to determine which group, or which groups" have been responsible, Aleji said, though he said that reports of rebel shelling were credible. "They use very primitive methods and homemade bombs, like butane gas canisters and other mortar shells that are homemade," he explained, noting that these are also "very indiscriminate methods."
Whether a truce can halt fighting under such circumstances, even for 48 hours, remains uncertain.
Much of the international debate over a truce in the city has revolved around the presence of the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front in the eastern half of the city. The group, which is designated a terrorist group internationally, is not included in Syria's ceasefire.
Russian officials have emphasized the Nusra Front's presence within the city and have charged that the group has sabotaged previous ceasefire attempts. US officials have offered mixed assessments of the size of the group's presence.
"It's primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo," Department of Defense spokesperson Colonel Steve Warren said on April 25. The State Department walked back Warren's remarks in an April 27 statement that denied that Nusra controls the city, but acknowledged that the group's presence complicates the ceasefire. The US has encouraged other rebels to distance themselves from Nusra.
"It is a very fluid situation," State Department spokesperson Toner said on Wednesday. "Nusra is not party to the cessation. We all know that. But we have not seen the regime's actions specifically targeting Nusra; in fact, we've seen them targeting civilian populations as well as opposition groups. So what we want to see is the regime to comply with the cessation of hostilities, which only applies to those who have signed up to the cessation of hostilities."
Rebels inside the city, including a Nusra representative, acknowledged that Nusra Front is present in the city but said the relevant area is mostly controlled by other local Islamist and nationalist factions.
The Nusra Front forces in the city "are local guys," said Levant Front representative Abu Yasir. "They aren't a dominant player here."
Yet the group's presence, even as a minority force, raises questions about the Syrian ceasefire's prospects, in Aleppo city and elsewhere.
Conditioning the ceasefire on Nusra being entirely excluded from it is unworkable, Nusra Front media official Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi told VICE News on Wednesday.
"Nusra Front is present in every liberated area, with only a few exceptions," he said. "If the reason [for excluding areas from the ceasefire] is going to be that Nusra is present, then every area will be excluded from the truce."
Abdulsattar Abogoda contributed to this report