UN to Expand Aid Delivery in Syria as Fragile Peace Holds

  • Aid to reach about 150,000 beseiged people within five days
  • Partial truce announced by U.S. and Russia began on Saturday

The United Nations plans to step up delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria, taking advantage of a fragile cease-fire that largely held for a third day.

The UN plans to distribute aid to 154,000 people in areas besieged by government troops and rebels in the next five days, according to the office of the UN humanitarian affairs coordinator in Damascus. The agency is ready to help about 1.7 million people in difficult to reach areas.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

The decision follows a partial truce that was announced by the U.S. and Russia on Feb. 22 and began Saturday. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which has gained the upper hand in the conflict backed by Russian air power, agreed to the proposal, and 97 armed opposition groups on Friday confirmed their participation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad.

Photographer:Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

So far, there have been limited violations to the cease-fire, while airstrikes have continued against Islamic State militants and others not covered by the partial truce, including the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the overall decline in violence the past three days is notable for a country that has experienced more five years of civil war and that violations will be investigated. He said humanitarian assistance could be sped up, adding that he is “concerned about reports that the Assad regime continues to drag its feet in providing permits for aid.” He called on Russia and Iran to pressure the Syrian government to accelerate the permit process.

Speaking alongside Kerry in Washington on Monday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, “What’s important is that we make sure the cessation of hostilities becomes more long-term.”

A complete cessation of hostilities was never likely after five years of war that has killed more than 270,000 people and created a refugee crisis straining Europe’s borders. The United Nations has said it plans to resume stalled peace talks on March 7 if the cease-fire “largely holds.”

Enforcing the truce has become even more urgent given concerns that Turkey and Saudi Arabia will become more heavily engaged in the war. While Russia and Iran are backing Assad, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are part of a U.S.-led coalition supporting various rebel groups, including some that the Syrians and their allies consider radical Islamists.

Saudi Warning

Underlining the fragility of peace efforts, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned of a return to conflict if Assad’s government failed to abide by the truce.

If Assad and his allies aren’t serious, “the solution is clear,” he said during a televised press conference. “The solution includes Syria without Bashar al-Assad. There is no controversy on this or negotiation about it.”

Kurdish YPG fighters backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes recaptured the town of Tal Abyad, sited along Syria’s border with Turkey, from Islamic State militants, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict through activists on the ground, said Sunday. The town was a crucial transit point for foreign fighters and logistics heading for Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said he hopes the partial cease-fire will free combatants in the region to focus on defeating Islamic State. Obama said last week he had directed his team to “continue intensifying efforts” against the terrorist organization, and that he sees retaking Anbar province and Mosul in Iraq as the next steps in the fight.

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