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Inside the Failed Syria Cease-Fire

The deal was hopeless before the ink dried, some say.

ByABC News
September 21, 2016, 6:04 PM

LONDON— -- The United States and Russia announced a Syria cease-fire deal Sept. 9. It officially took effect Sept. 12 and was supposed to be expanded on after an initial seven-day period.

It collapsed on Monday, exactly a week after it started.

How the Deal Fell Apart

It was the moment of truth for the feeble week-long ceasefire in Syria, and it went up in flames.

A humanitarian aid convoy of 31 trucks carrying water, food, sanitation and hygiene supplies for 78,000 people in opposition-held Aleppo came under attack in a prolonged airstrike Monday night, killing about 20 people, according to Physicians for Human Rights, and destroying 18 trucks.

The unimpeded delivery of aid was a linchpin of the cease-fire deal brokered by the United States and Russia on Sept. 9. It was the last of the three pillars of the deal that still had a standing chance.

The United States blamed Russia for the attack. Russia denied any involvement, advancing a series of increasingly implausible scenarios, including that the convoy caught fire on its own, and that a U.S. drone was to blame.

A U.S. official said there were no U.S. aircraft flying in the area. Despite their sparring, both powers maintained that the deal still stood.

The attack on the aid convoy marked the beginning of a re-escalation of aerial bombardment and artillery shelling, mainly by the Syrian regime and its backers, that lasted well into the Tuesday morning.

“We died a thousand times over last night,” a resident of East Aleppo City said Tuesday morning, telling ABC News the attacks hadn’t relented for over eight hours.

Attacks by the Syrian regime and its allies were also reported in other areas of Syria. Russia, meanwhile, reported a renewed offensive by the armed opposition factions in Aleppo province.

One other major incident happened during the initial seven-day period. On Saturday, the U.S.-led coalition mistakenly bombed what appeared to be a unit of the Syrian Arab Army, killing 62 and wounding 100. The United States acknowledged the mistake and apologized, though Russia still convened an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the matter.

Why Is a Cease-Fire in Syria Important to the US?

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a Security Council meeting,  Sept. 21, 2016, at U.N. headquarters.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a Security Council meeting, Sept. 21, 2016, at U.N. headquarters.

A day after Aleppo awoke to aid in ashes, diplomats in New York convened at the United Nations to hold more talks about the situation.

“This is a moment of truth,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria today in a searing speech. “If we allow spoilers to choose the path for us – the path of escalation … then make no mistake … the next time we convene here, we’re going to be facing a Middle East with even more refugees, with more dead, with more displaced, with more extremists, and more suffering on an even greater scale.”

The United States and Russia have agreed on four different international agreements to halt the fighting in Syria so far, and all have failed.

“It’s important for the U.S. that the cessation of hostilities holds in Syria because we have U.S. troops there; we can’t get them home until the conflict is stabilized,” said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. “And the conflict in Syria has spawned ISIS terror attacks in Europe, our most important ally.”

How Likely Was the Cease-Fire to Last?

For many, this agreement was dead on arrival.

“It was inherently flawed because it didn’t have an enforcement mechanism,” according to Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The agreement hinged on three main components: The Syrian government air force was to stop flying over the entire Syrian territory except for well-defined areas where terror-designated groups, ISIS and former al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS) operated; humanitarian aid delivery would be unimpeded; and armed opposition factions were to disassociate themselves from JFS. None of these commitments were honored.

During the initial seven-day cease-fire period, shelling and airstrikes continued though they had diminished, humanitarian aid convoys were blocked for the duration and the armed opposition factions did not make moves to distance themselves from JFS. Some went as far as declaring their solidarity with the terror-designated group.

This has been the main Russian complaint about the implementation of the deal. “The Russian-American agreement emphasizes that the key priority is the disassociation of the opposition groups of terrorists from ISIS and Nusra [the former name of JFS],” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the U.N. Security Council.

Analysts cast doubt over the ability of the United States to persuade armed opposition factions to stop working with JFS, a group that has emerged as the most reliable and well-equipped fighting force on the ground.

“The U.S. and the U.N. have lost a lot of credibility in Aleppo,” Hokayem, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said. “They were unable to prevent the siege of the city and those who broke it were the Islamist and jihadist factions, including JFS.”

The Syrian opposition feels as though it is backed into a corner.

“The international community has still not provided any guarantees that if the armed opposition factions reorganized along these lines, that the Assad regime and its allies won’t take advantage of the situation to advance militarily on the ground,” according to Basma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian opposition High Negotiation Committee who is currently in New York.

What Happens Next?

In a bid to salvage the cease-fire deal, the United States is reiterating the call for an immediate grounding of the Syrian air force accused by the United States and the U.N. of dropping unguided and deadly barrel bombs on civilians and targeting hospitals and first responders. It is also asking, along with the U.N., for the immediate unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid to all besieged and hard to reach areas in Syria.

The likelihood of solving the Syrian conflict before the inauguration of a new U.S. president in January seems highly unlikely, though, as a durable, sustainable cease-fire looks more elusive than ever.

The Syrian government quickly rejected the idea of grounding its air force and maintained that it was not impeding humanitarian aid deliveries.

In the meantime, the various warring parties in Syria -- both Syrian factions and foreign countries including Russia, Iran and Turkey -- look set to push on with their own agendas.

“The various actors in Syria are using the current situation to consolidate their positions and, if possible, expand their leverage,” including NATO-member Turkey, Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said.

Turkey recently launched a ground operation into Syrian territory that it said aimed to fight ISIS, though observers noted that the main areas in which it is operating was territory recently consolidated by the YPG, a Kurdish militant group backed by the United States but affiliated with the terror-designated Kurdish separatist PKK militant group that has been in conflict with Turkey for decades.

The United Nations estimates that well over 300,000 Syrians have been killed since the start of the uprising in 2011, about 10 million have been displaced and 1 million live under siege with an additional 4.5 million in hard to reach areas.

Since 2011, Physicians for Human Rights has documented 382 attacks against 269 medical facilities – 90 percent of those attacks were carried out by Syrian government forces or their Russian allies.

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