Syria truce holds but relief convoys remain on hold
BEIRUT - Besieged Syrian civilians waited desperately for aid on Wednesday as relief convoys remained on hold despite a significant drop in violence under a ceasefire brokered by Washington and Moscow.
The truce that began at sundown on Monday is part of the latest bid to end a five-year conflict that has killed more than 300,000 people.
The US-Russian deal aims to end fighting between President Bashar al-Assad's loyalists and a wide range of rebels, but excludes jihadist forces like the Islamic State (ISIS) group.
The UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura on Tuesday hailed the truce for bringing about "a significant drop in violence" despite isolated incidents.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, said it had recorded no deaths in the country since the truce took effect.
But there appeared to be no progress on another key element of the agreement: unhindered aid access throughout the country, particularly to areas like rebel-held east Aleppo.
Millions of Syrians are in desperate need of assistance, especially in besieged and hard-to-reach areas with severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
Aleppo, Syria's second city, is a particular focus after weeks of heavy fighting. The eastern neighbourhoods where some 250,000 people live have been under government siege for most of the last two months.
UN aid trucks are waiting north of Aleppo in Turkey, but a Syrian security source told AFP on Wednesday that the regime had yet to withdraw its forces from the key Castello Road running to the Turkish border.
The demilitarisation of the road, to allow for unimpeded aid deliveries and civilian movement, is a key plank of the US-Russian deal.
David Swanson, the spokesman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Turkey's Gaziantep, said the agency had 20 trucks loaded with a month's worth of food rations for 40,000 people waiting on the border.
"The main issue at this point is ensuring all parties to the conflict are on the same page... This is a very complex environment and we need security guarantees," he told AFP.
Swanson said it was unlikely security concerns would be resolved within the coming hours, allowing the convoys to move.
"Based on what we're hearing from the ground, it's not likely to happen today."
- Waiting for aid -
Residents in Aleppo have welcomed the lull in the fighting that has ravaged Syria, displacing more than half the population and leaving former economic powerhouse Aleppo divided and destroyed.
But they expressed frustration about the delay in promised aid to eastern districts.
"The truce is good, but it's not enough. We want food to come in," said Abu Jamil, a resident of the Ansari neighbourhood in the besieged east.
"The situation is still bad as the markets are empty," the 55-year-old told AFP.
The deal calls for the truce to be renewed every 48 hours, and for Washington and Moscow to begin unprecedented joint targeting of jihadists like IS and former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front if the ceasefire lasts a week.
Initially, the deal allows the Syrian air force to continue strikes in areas where IS and Fateh al-Sham, previously known as Al-Nusra Front, are present.
But once the joint Russian-US targeting begins, government warplanes "will no longer be able to fly in any areas of Syria where there is opposition or Al-Nusra Front presence," a senior US administration official said Tuesday.
- 'Very positive' -
So far, only minor incidents have been reported, with the Russian defence ministry saying Tuesday it had recorded 23 rebel violations.
The Observatory reported minor violations by both sides, but no casualties.
"It is very positive," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
"If things continue on this path it will be a positive development in protecting Syrian civilians from killing, fighting and displacement."
But there remains deep scepticism about whether the truce will hold, with the opposition yet to officially sign on.
A crucial part of the deal calls on non-jihadist rebels to break ranks with Fateh al-Sham ahead of joint US-Russian operations against the group.
But many Islamist rebel groups cooperate closely with Fateh al-Sham, and the biggest of them -- the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group -- has criticised the terms of the Russian-US deal.
If the deal does hold, it could open the door to new peace talks to resolve the conflict, with Russia saying De Mistura could invite government and opposition representatives to new talks "at the very beginning of October".