Activist: Aid could enter rebel-held parts of Aleppo

Bassem Mroue
Associated Press

Beirut — Russian troops have deployed along a main road leading into besieged rebel-held neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo ahead of the possible arrival of aid convoys later Friday, a Syrian activist said, as fighting broke out in the capital, Damascus, in what appeared to be a serious violation of the U.S.-Russia brokered cease-fire.

Insurgents shelled government-held areas in the eastern Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, wounding three people, Syrian state media said. SANA said the shelling violates the cease-fire, which went into effect Monday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday’s fighting is concentrated in the neighborhood of Jobar, next to Qaboun.

Mazen al-Shami, an opposition activist near Damascus, said government forces tried to storm Jobar but were repelled by opposition fighters. Al-Qaida and Islamic State group fighters, who are excluded from the cease-fire, are not present in the area, he said.

The truce has been holding despite some violations in different areas, with the Syrian opposition on Thursday reporting 46 cease-fire violations around the country. The Observatory reported the first three deaths since the cease-fire went into effect on Thursday.

Outside Aleppo, Syrian forces that had been stationed along Castello road — a main artery into rebel-held neighborhoods of the city — were replaced by Russian troops, Rami Abdurrahman of the Observatory said. Aid is expected to enter rebel-held Aleppo later Friday, he said.

Aleppo-based activist Bahaa al-Halaby denied that government troops had withdrawn, adding that humanitarian conditions in the eastern neighborhoods of Syria’s largest city are deteriorating.

“Humanitarian conditions are very difficult. There are wounded people and others who need food,” al-Halaby said. Families in eastern districts receive limited daily rations of bread and there are severe shortages of fruit and vegetables.

Aid deliveries are part of a U.S.-Russia deal that imposed the cease-fire.

Russia’s military announced Thursday evening that Syrian government forces had begun withdrawing from Castello road but did not confirm if Russian troops would be stationed there. The Pentagon said it had no indication of a withdrawal.

Russia’s deployment on the road would mark the most overt participation of its ground forces in the Syrian war and underlines the country’s role as a major power broker. Russia intervened with its air force on the side of President Bashar Assad’s government last year, turning the tide of the war in his favor.

A main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said it rejected “Russian occupation” on the road and that U.N. peacekeepers should run the operation to guarantee the delivery of aid.

Hezbollah’s media arm, known as Military Media, said demonstrators from the Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahraa in Aleppo province have started a march toward Castello road to demand that no aid be allowed into eastern Aleppo until aid is sent to two Shiite villages besieged by insurgents in the nearby province of Idlib.

Meanwhile, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said the future of Assad is an internal Syrian issue and the U.S.-Russia Syria agreement does not deal with it.

Assad has been accused of war crimes in the Syrian civil war and his opponents inside and outside the country have insisted that his departure is a prerequisite for a peace settlement.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said in an interview with the RIA Novosti news that Assad’s future is “purely Syrian business.”