- Temporary Aleppo cease-fire was due to expire at end of Monday
- Lavrov spoke by phone with Kerry, urged continued peace talks
Russia said a fragile cease-fire in the key Syrian city of Aleppo has been extended for another 48 hours, as efforts continue to try to end five years of civil war.
Russia and the U.S. reached agreement with the Syrian government and moderate opposition groups to continue the truce that was due to expire at midnight on Monday, General-Lieutenant Sergei Kuralenko, head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria, said Tuesday, the RIA Novosti news service reported. The cease-fire has produced a marked reduction in tensions, according to Kuralenko.
Russia and the U.S. said in a joint statement on Monday that they’re “determined to improve and sustain” the cessation of hostilities. Russia, whose military campaign in Syria has bolstered President Bashar al-Assad, also agreed to press the Syrian government to “minimize aviation” operations over areas mostly inhabited by civilians or rebel groups that have signed up to the cease-fire.
The U.S. said it would work with regional allies to prevent terrorist groups smuggling weapons and fighters into Syria and together with Russia to identify territory controlled by Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which aren’t part of the truce.
Peace talks in the Swiss city of Geneva collapsed last month after an upsurge in fighting, particularly in Aleppo, threatened to end a partial cease-fire brokered by Russia and the U.S. in late February. The Syrian conflict, which has killed at least a quarter of a million people and caused millions more to flee their homes, has handed Islamic State territory from which to plot terror attacks in Paris and Brussels and provoked the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
Meeting with allies in Paris, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the Syrian crisis is at a “critical stage” and called on Assad’s government to “immediately cease its violations of the cease-fire” to allow peace talks to resume. Leaders of major powers will gather in Vienna on May 17 in an attempt to re-start negotiations.
Bassma Kodmani, a member of the opposition-backed High Negotiations Committee, said that an extension of the cease-fire beyond Aleppo and improvements in delivering humanitarian aid should make a return to talks possible.
Russia, whose air force is backing Syrian government troops, defended the Aleppo offensive as a response to attacks by Nusra and rebel groups working alongside it, demanding that opposition forces cut all ties with the al-Qaeda wing. Last week, though, it agreed to a truce in the northern city that was initially due to last 48 hours and was extended for another 72 hours from Saturday.
“When the Russians decide to use their influence, things happen,” said Kodmani. “We see who holds the power.”
The Syrian opposition says Assad is determined to reassert full control of Aleppo, once the country’s commercial capital and a key bastion of anti-government forces. Since April 22, Syrian rebels and military loyal to Assad traded rockets and bombs across Aleppo and its outskirts for around two weeks in clashes that killed 290 civilians, according to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, a U.K.-based monitoring group.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone on Monday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Lavrov urged rebel groups who enjoy support from the U.S. to end all links to terrorists as well as cut off supply routes for extremists from Turkey, according to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. He also called for the resumption of the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva.
The U.S.-Russia statement demanded an end to “indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including civilian infrastructure and medical facilities.” On April 28, airstrikes on a hospital supported by Medecins Sans Frontieres in a rebel-held area in Aleppo killed at least 50 people, according to MSF. The Syrian opposition blamed government planes for the attack.