Syrian army shelled by rebels in Aleppo as US, Russia say ceasefire 'holding'

A general view shows Castello road in Aleppo, Syria September 16, 2016. © Abdalrhman Ismail
The US and Russia said that the recently negotiated ceasefire regime in Syria is still holding despite numerous violations by various militant groups, and agreed to extend it for a further three days, the Russian Foreign Ministry says.

Speaking at a briefing Friday, senior Russian General Staff official Viktor Poznikhir said that Syrian government forces were first to withdraw from the strategic Castello road into Aleppo under the latest US-Russian agreement on Syria. However, they had to return to their positions after being shelled by rebels, he added.

“On the Castello road, governmental forces have pulled back tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery to an agreed distance to create a demilitarized zone,” senior Russian General Staff official Viktor Poznikhir told journalists in Moscow during a briefing Friday.

Poznikhir added that the US-backed opposition groups did not take any similar actions. At the same time, the deputy chief of the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria, Sergey Kapitsyn, said that radar images and visual observation also show that opposition groups did not withdraw from the road.

Kapitsyn stressed that Syrian army forces came under “heavy mortar and small-arms fire” near the Castello road. As a result, two Syrian army soldiers sustained heavy injuries, he said, adding that government forces had to return to their initial positions to prevent the militants from taking control over the future demilitarized zone.

The Castello road should serve as a humanitarian corridor to deliver much-needed UN aid to civilians in the besieged city and the neighboring regions, according to the agreement negotiated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his US counterpart, John Kerry, in Geneva on September 9. However, the situation in the Aleppo region could still put the creation of the demilitarized zone around the road in jeopardy, the Russian military has warned.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire regime has been violated by the opposition forces 39 times over the last 24 hours, the Russian General Staff said, adding that the total number of truce violations since the ceasefire came into effect now stands at 144.

“The number of ceasefire violations by the Syrian opposition is consistently growing,” Poznikhir told journalists, stressing that the US “still takes no measures to make opposition forces under its control observe the ceasefire regime.” Poznikhir also added that Russia and Syrian army “fully fulfill their obligations.”

Meanwhile, the Russian General Staff said that Russia is ready to extend the ceasefire regime for a further 72 hours, despite “numerous violations” by the Syrian opposition.

“We are ready to extend the truce regime for an additional 72 hours,” Poznikhir said during the news briefing, adding that Russia is “doing its best to implement the agreements reached in Geneva” despite the lack of progress in separation of the US-backed opposition from the Al-Nusra Front.

“We expect the US side to take decisive measures to influence the armed [opposition] groups under its control to make them fully comply with the September 9 agreements. Otherwise, the situation can get out of control,” Poznikhir said.

At the same time, despite all the violations, Lavrov and Kerry agreed in a phone conversation on Friday that the ceasefire is still holding and its observation is “at a satisfactory level.” They also said that the truce regime should be made permanent, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

Pentagon hands data on opposition groups’ positions to Russia for 1st time

The US has handed over information about the areas controlled by the US-backed opposition over to Russia for the first time, Russian Defense Ministry’s officials in Geneva US-Russian contact center told journalists.

At the same time, they stressed that preliminary analysis of the data does not allow the Russian military to distinguish between areas controlled by opposition forces and those seized by the Al-Nusra Front terrorists.

Russian military officials in Geneva once again emphasized that the need for the US to provide data allowing Russia to distinguish between positions held by the opposition and those taken by terrorists.

The cessation of hostilities, which initially lasted 48 hours, came into force on Monday at 7pm Damascus time (16:00 GMT). It was a part of a broader deal negotiated by Lavrov and Kerry on September 9 in Geneva. It was then extended for another two days and currently expires on Friday.

It was initially agreed that, if the truce held for seven days, Russia and the US would establish a joint center to coordinate airstrikes against terrorist groups in Syria. However, on Friday, US State Secretary John Kerry said that the US will not establish the joint US-Russian coordination center until humanitarian aid is delivered to the city of Aleppo and other areas, the US State Department said.