The United States and Russia said Friday that they have arranged a renewed cease-fire in two parts of Syria where fighting escalated this month, but the area does not include Aleppo, site of the heaviest attacks and dozens of civilian deaths in recent days.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said that a “regime of quiet” had been agreed to with the Syrian government in Latakia province, on the Mediterranean coast, to begin at midnight Saturday morning. A senior U.S. State Department official said the “recommitment” to a truce would also cover East Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus.
“For the moment, this is what we have to go forward with, but we are working constantly on Aleppo and other areas,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under guidelines imposed by the State Department.
The agreement — which Russia initially said would last 72 hours but the State Department said was open-ended — came as another wave of airstrikes and shelling swept across Aleppo, where more than 200 people have been killed in the past week. While Syrian government airstrikes were blamed for bombarding a hospital Wednesday, killing at least 50, rebel barrages apparently also contributed to the violence.
Russia reported that its consulate in Aleppo had also been hit by mortars it said were launched by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, some of whose forces are interspersed in the area with opposition fighters supported by the United States and its regional allies.
Renewed fighting has brought to a virtual collapse the partial cease-fire forged earlier this year by Washington and Moscow, supported by a group of nations with interests in Syria.
In the first month after its Feb. 27 implementation, the cease-fire brought a welcome quiet after years of civil war, with Russia greatly reducing its airstrikes against opposition forces in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, although the Syrian government was accused of frequent violations.
Most opposition groups stopped offensive actions, despite coming under government attack. Only two groups — the Islamic State and Nusra, both deemed terrorist organizations by the United Nations — were excluded from what the agreement called a “cessation of hostilities.”
But in recent weeks, as renewed fighting escalated — particularly in Latakia, the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo — Russia and the United States have publicly accused each other of undermining the truce, although they insist that they are continuing to cooperate to monitor its implementation.
It has been particularly intense this week in and around Aleppo, a city divided between opposition and government forces since 2012, as Syrian government forces apparently have tried to cut off rebel supply lines from Turkey. Russian and Syrian forces have moved both troops and heavy artillery to the area after a recent successful offensive in the desert city of Palmyra, saying that Nusra forces are massing to take over the city.
U.S. intelligence and outside experts tracking combatant movements acknowledge that Nusra and rebel forces are intertwined in areas in and around Aleppo, but they discount Russian claims that the militants are either “massing” or planning a new offensive. Instead, they say, Syria and Russia are seeking to attack opposition rebels under the guise of striking Nusra, as allowed under the cease-fire.
A U.S.-Russia task force that is supposed to monitor the cease-fire and adjudicate violation claims met behind closed doors in Geneva on Thursday to revitalize the truce in selected areas. Although the United States and its allies in the region have said that Assad has been responsible for most violations overall, the task force’s failure to publicly rule on any breaches has undermined opposition confidence in its efforts.
The cease-fire was designed from the start both for its own sake and to provide a helpful environment for political talks, overseen in Geneva by the United Nations, between opposition and Assad representatives on a transition government. Although U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said that progress had been made in two rounds of talks, opposition representatives formally suspended their participation last week because of the rising violence on the ground.
On Wednesday, de Mistura said he hoped to restart them in May but that there was little point in setting a date until the violence decreased. He appealed for “a U.S.-Russia urgent initiative at the highest levels” and a new meeting of the International Syrian Support Group, the group of foreign ministers of European and Middle Eastern governments co-chaired by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that negotiated the original cease-fire in February.
The State Department official said that Kerry and Lavrov had spoken by telephone Friday and that “we need to bring the ministers of the ISSG back together.”