Ceasefire still on table after reassuring Syria Support Group meeting at UN
Despite the ongoing blame game over the elimination of a humanitarian aid convoy in the southwest of Aleppo on Monday, the members of the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG), co-chaired by the US and Russia, agreed on Tuesday they will not give up on attempts to enforce the ceasefire in Syria in accordance with the Geneva deal.
Following the ISSG meeting on the sidelines of the 71st UN General Assembly session, the US State Department issued a statement calling on all parties to adhere to the ceasefire “despite continued violence.”
“There [is] 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,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement, referring to the general mood at the ISSG meeting.
He emphasized the need to advance against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front militants in Syria, conceding that some “difficulties” exist in separating Al-Nusra Front and the so-called moderate rebels.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov designated the delineation between US-backed moderate opposition and terrorists a top priority, urging regional powers to put pressure on radical groups under their influence, without specifying the details.
“The ceasefire is not dead,” assured US Secretary of State John Kerry as he emerged from the meeting preceded by the talks with Lavrov.
His words were echoed by the UN’s envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who admitted that although “the ceasefire is in danger” it is premature to speculate on its failure to deliver the goods as “the only ones who can announce the ceasefire is dead are the two co-chairs [Lavrov and Kerry] and they have today not done so.”
“The ceasefire is not dead. That, I can tell you, was confirmed by everyone around the table,” he said, adding that Moscow and Washington “want to give it another chance.”
De Mistura announced the group would convene again on Friday to set a date for the next round of intra-Syrian talks.
The UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has also underscored the key role of the Russia-US deal in ending the hostilities in Syria, affirming that “the Kerry-Lavrov process is the only show in town and we've got to get that show back on the road.”
On Tuesday, Johnson and Lavrov held their first face-to-face meeting since the reshuffle of the UK cabinet, in which Johnson called on Russia to use its leverage on the Syrian government.
Apart from Johnson, the Russian FM has met with Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades, as well as BRICS foreign ministers.
Despite the renewed push for a ceasefire at the meeting, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault pointed out the ceasefire is unlikely to survive unless the other countries, besides US and Russia, are ready to contribute to its implementation.
“The Russians and the Americans can't do it alone,” he said, describing the general sentiment at the four-hour long talks as rather “gloomy.”
“Is there hope? I can't answer that yet, but we should do everything we can,” he said, as cited by AFP news agency.
The attack on the 31-vehicle convoy on Monday caused the destruction of 18 trucks with food and supplies and the death of 21 people, according to the Red Cross. Initial reports by the organization claimed the convoy had been targeted by an airstrike.
The incident has soured relations between Washington and Moscow ahead of the meeting after the White House accused Russia of allowing the alleged “airstrike” to occur, as it holds Russia “responsible for airstrikes in this space, given that their commitment under the cessation of hostilities was to certainly ground air operations where humanitarian assistance is flowing.”
Moscow denied the allegations, insisting that the extent and the nature of destruction of the convoy’s vehicles suggested it had somehow caught fire on the ground and were not hit in an airstrike.
“We have closely studied [drone videos] from where the incident took place and we did not find any signs of any ammunition having hit the convoy,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement Tuesday.
“There are no craters, while the vehicles have their chassis intact and they have not been severely damaged, which would have been the case from an airstrike. [All videos] demonstrate that the convoy caught fire, which happened almost at exactly the same time as militants started a large scale offensive on Aleppo,” the statement said.
“Only representatives of the 'White Helmets' organization close to Al-Nusra Front who, as always, found themselves at the right time in the right place by chance with their video cameras can answer who did this and why,” it continued.
The White Helmets is a volunteer civil defense organization that operates throughout opposition-controlled Syria and is often linked to militants from the group formerly known as Al-Nusra Front. One of the videos released by the Defense Ministry from the site appears to show militants driving a pickup with a mortar taking cover behind the aid convoy.
Russia also denies that Syrian warplanes could have hit the convoy, as they don’t carry out flights at night.
“Our [Russian] defense forces already made statements that their aircraft was not involved [in the incident]. The Syrian aviation also could not work there, as the attack was carried out at night, the Syrian Air Force does not operate at night, it doesn’t have the capabilities for it,” Lavrov told Russia’s Channel 1.
On Tuesday, the UN retreated from previous claims that the convoy was hit by military planes.
“We are not in a position to determine whether these were in fact airstrikes. We are in a position to say that the convoy was attacked,” UN humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spoke of a deliberate attempt by Washington to turn the international community attention from the US-led coalition bombing of the Syrian army positions on September 17 by blaming the attack on the convoy on Russia without any evidence supporting the claims.
A number of countries, including US, UK, Denmark and Australia admitted that they took part in the US-led coalition jets operation that took lives of over 60 Syrian troops and injured dozens, paving way for an IS offensive in the area.