JERUSALEM, 12 February 2016
Annie Slemrod

Middle East Editor

As diplomats hash out the finer details of a deal to cease hostilities and allow increased humanitarian access in Syria, it appears that the civilians of Aleppo may have been left in the lurch.

While the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – a body including the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and notably no Syrians – announced overnight that it had reached a deal to push for an end to fighting in a week’s time, aid access is expected to come sooner.

The ISSG statement said “sustained delivery” of assistance would begin this week and listed Deir Ezzor, Fua, Kefrayah, besieged areas of rural Damascus, Madaya, Moadamiyeh and Kafr Batna as beneficiaries.

A UN source told IRIN that aid convoys were ready to move, but delivering aid in Syria has never been simple, and it is likely to have to be a carefully coordinated process to ensure no side feels aggrieved. The ISSG statement even used the word “simultaneously” to underline this point.

Notably absent from the ISSG list is Aleppo, where intensified fighting, including bombardments by Russian warplanes, have forced tens of thousands to flee and aid agencies to warn of an impending humanitarian catastrophe.

An estimated 300,000-500,000 civilians remain inside what used to be Syria’s most populous city. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have cut off key supply routes in, leading to fears it might become the largest siege yet in a war marked by many horrific and cynical sieges.

See: All you need to know about sieges in Syria

Russia, accused by Western powers of seeking to bolster Assad at the expense of Syrian opposition groups, has said it will continue airstrikes against those it considers terrorists.

A loophole for the Russians?

Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained that the ISSG agreement contains a key loophole that the Russians will likely seek to exploit, even after any ceasefire.

“The ISSG members agreed that a nationwide cessation of hostilities must be urgently implemented, and should apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities against any other parties other than Daesh (so-called Islamic State), Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front), or other groups designated as terrorist organisations by the United Nations Security Council,” the ISSG statement says.

The Russians have been accused of bombing other moderate opposition groups under the cover of taking on the Nusra Front or IS, and Nusra, an important opposition force affiliated with al-Qaeda, does have a presence in western Aleppo.

“There’s a real dilemma,” Barnes-Darcey told IRIN. “Even though the Russians clearly manipulate and push the envelope in terms of who is ‘Nusra,’ there are clearly elements in Idlib and west Aleppo.”

This could give Russia cover to keep bombing, and place “backers of the opposition who have signed up to the deal in a difficult position” and even lead to the whole thing unravelling, he warned.

Columb Strack, senior analyst at IHS, also believes that the Nusra Front is so heavily involved in fighting in northern Syria that the deal will mean little change for the city. “Any ceasefire is… very unlikely to affect the fighting in and around Aleppo," he said in a statement.

However, Barnes-Darcey was still hopeful that localised ceasefires would now emerge, allowing vital aid access and supply routes to open up in other parts of Syria.

“If you can get some kind of international consensus and coordination on getting aid into certain places that haven’t had it for a long time, that in itself would be progress,” he said.

Not everyone is so optimistic

But Rami Jarrah, a citizen journalist and strong critic of both Assad and IS who lived and worked in Aleppo until recently, had no kind words for the agreement and painted a gloomy picture of life there.

“I don’t see anything positive coming out of this,” he told IRIN. “We have to look at what the Russian intention is, and that’s not a ceasefire… [The regime and the Russians] are biding their time. They have an advantage every single day that goes past.” 

“Civilians are trying to flee,” he continued. “There is panic in Aleppo now, and those who want to stay are stocking up.”

International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Dibeh Fakhr told IRIN by email that the aid organisation hopes the agreement “will translate into concrete action on the ground, giving us unimpeded and regular access to all areas where millions of people are in dire need of help.

“We need to see more political ambition to open impartial humanitarian spaces and less political meddling in humanitarian work,” she said. “As we speak and hope for a cease-fire, fighting is still raging in Aleppo Province and many other areas across Syria. People whether on the move, stranded on the border, residents or besieged are suffering and striving to survive under precarious conditions.”

While the deal is more than most observers expected, most are hesitant to call it a success, after repeated failures of diplomacy to make any break through to end almost five years of conflict.

See: Syrian peace talks lost in a fog of war

And, if the war’s continuation was in any doubt, Assad soon did his best to quash any hopes of imminent or lasting peace.

In remarks published just hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry announced this imminent pause, he vowed to regain control of all of Syria “without any hesitation” and warned that this could “take a long time”.

as/ag