How much fighting has to take place before a shaky truce in Syria is declared to have broken down?
A “system of calm” announced by the Syrian military may have restored a semblance of normality in some parts of the country Saturday, but in the divided city of Aleppo, residents described a “state of terror” for the ninth consecutive day.
Pro-opposition activists uploaded horrific videos of shell-shocked people emerging from the wreckage of buildings covered in a film of dust and blood.
“From morning until 1 in the afternoon, you had more than 20 air raids by the Syrian air force,” said Bebars Meshaal, a member of the Aleppo Civil Defense unit, a rescue team that works in rebel-held areas of Syria’s largest city.
Moments later, he said he had just heard a jet flying over the city to begin another bombing run.
Meanwhile, on the government side, many were afraid to leave their homes because of the rebels’ steady barrage of shells.
“Markets in Aleppo were nearly empty today, and I saw only a dozen people coming out to what is thought to be a safe area of the city,” said an administrator of a pro-government Facebook page that focuses on news from the Aleppo region. “There are many casualties among the people here, and official state media is downplaying the numbers to reduce the shock among the country’s citizens.”
Reached via the WhatsApp messaging service, he declined to have his name published for safety reasons.
The sharp spike in fighting in and around Aleppo has killed more than 250 people since April 22, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group. The figure includes 148 people killed in rebel-held areas and 96 in government-held parts of the city.
The main opposition delegation at peace talks in Geneva walked out in protest of the escalating violence. Even the usually optimistic U.N. special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, described the cessation of hostilities brokered by the United States and Russia in February as “barely alive.”
In a statement Friday, the Syrian army command said it was imposing the temporary calm in areas around the Syrian capital, Damascus, and in the northwestern province of Latakia in an attempt to bolster the truce. Yet Aleppo was conspicuously absent from the army’s statement.
The city’s reputation as the one-time industrial heart of Syria’s economy has become a distant memory, as the fighting has rendered much of it a charred wasteland. Neither the government nor rebel factions have been able to take control of Aleppo, whose proximity to the Turkish border as well as symbolic importance make it a prize that could help deliver a wider victory.
The government’s supporters argue that Aleppo should not be part of the truce because the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate, is active there and in nearby areas. However, Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Syrian observatory, lamented the uptick in fighting in Aleppo, which he contrasted with the relatively tranquil day people experienced in other parts of the country.
“There was nothing in Latakia and Damascus,” he said in a telephone interview Saturday. “But in the case of Aleppo, it appears there is no will by Russia to stop the government’s attack.”
Russia, which deployed its warplanes in September to buttress Syrian President Bashar Assad’s flagging troops, has worked with the U.S. to push for a political settlement. However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennadiy Gatilov told the Interfax news agency Saturday that Moscow is not going to put pressure on Damascus over Aleppo because “the situation in Aleppo is part of this fight against the terrorist threat.”
Syrian government media also spoke in the past week of an all-out battle to wrest control of the city. In a stern editorial Thursday, state newspaper Al Watan said it was “high time to launch the battle to fully liberate Aleppo from the evil of terrorism.”
Zeid Raad Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the violence in Syria was “soaring back to the levels we saw prior to the cessation of hostilities.”
“There are deeply disturbing reports of military build-ups indicating preparations for a lethal escalation,” he said in a statement Friday.
Hussein also spoke of civilians who remained trapped in besieged villages, towns and cities, where they are “at risk of starvation and have no access to adequate medical care.”
Siege tactics have been regularly employed during the five-year conflict, which has killed more than 250,000 people, ravaged large parts of the country and spurred a flood of refugees fleeing to Europe.
The cessation of hostilities has granted humanitarian workers a rare opportunity to deliver aid to some hard-to-reach areas.
On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was able to deliver 70 trucks of aid to the Syrian towns of Zabadani and Madaya, where there were reports of starvation earlier this year because of a siege imposed by the government and its allies. Aid was also delivered to Fuah and Kefraya, two towns that remain surrounded by hard-line Islamist militants.
Aid workers have reached more than half the besieged communities in Syria, Jan Egeland, a special advisor to De Mistura, told a news conference in Geneva on Thursday. But he said, “All of that may now be lost if the war continues as it is now, if the fighting and the violence and the bombardment of civilians ... of hospitals, of relief workers, continue.”
U.N. officials have been pressing the U.S. and Russia to use their influence over Syria’s warring sides to salvage the truce and restart negotiations.
“The cessation of hostilities and the Geneva talks were the only game in town,” Hussein said. “If they are abandoned now, I dread to think how much more horror we will see in Syria.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry was headed to Geneva on Sunday to review efforts to reaffirm the cessation of hostilities with De Mistura and the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian foreign ministers.
Bulos is a special correspondent.