BEIRUT -- Trucks carrying humanitarian aid to Syria's besieged rebel-held part of the city of Aleppo were delayed for yet another day as heavy fighting broke out Friday on the edges of Damascus between government forces and insurgents.
The clashes were some of the most intense since a U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire went into effect this week. The fighting and mutual accusations of violations sparked concern that the fragile cease-fire, which brought some relief to millions of people across the war-ravaged country, may be starting to fray.
In a further sign of tensions picking up, the Obama administration warned Russia that potential military cooperation in Syria will not happen unless humanitarian aid begins to flow into Aleppo and other besieged communities.
The Russian military had said that the Syrian army withdrew its armor, artillery and other weapons from a key highway near Aleppo early Thursday, signaling the possible arrival of aid convoys after several days of delay. Syrian state TV said bulldozers began clearing the road on the northwestern edge of Aleppo that leads into rebel-held neighborhoods to make way for the convoys.
But a Russian official, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Savchenko, said the Syrian army Friday moved its heavy weapons back to Castello Road after the opposition failed to withdraw its arms in sync under the terms of the truce deal.
In a video call from Castello Road, Russian Col. Sergei Kapitsyn said the rebels fired on government positions overnight, wounding two Syrian soldiers and prompting the Syrian army to move its weapons back to the road to prevent the rebels from advancing.
The Russian military said it has complained to the U.S. at a joint working group in Geneva about the opposition's failure to pull back in sync with the Syrian army but received no immediate response. The Russian military also claimed that the Syrian opposition has used the truce to regroup and strengthen its forces.
Aid Delays Decried
In a Friday phone call, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Moscow must use its influence with the Syrian government to get the aid moving.
Kerry told Lavrov that unless the aid is delivered, the U.S. will not move ahead with the formation of a joint center with Russia to coordinate attacks on terrorist groups and share intelligence.
Kerry called the delays in assistance to Aleppo "repeated" and "unacceptable" and said Russia must press Syrian President Bashar Assad to allow deliveries.
Kerry "emphasized that the United States expects Russia to use its influence on the Assad regime to allow U.N. humanitarian convoys to reach Aleppo and other areas in need," State Department spokesman John Kirby said. "The secretary made clear that the United States will not establish the Joint Implementation Center with Russia unless and until the agreed terms for humanitarian access are met."
Sustained delivery of humanitarian aid, along with a decrease in violence, is a requirement for that cooperation under an agreement Kerry and Lavrov reached last week.
If the aid starts flowing and the cease-fire holds, the expectations are that such a climate would pave the way for the restart of Syria peace talks that collapsed earlier this year.
The Russian Foreign Ministry's description of the Kerry-Lavrov call said the two men had focused on implementation of the agreement that they reached a week ago in Geneva, according to Russian news agencies.
The ministry said Lavrov had once again called for the United States to make the agreement public and have the United Nations Security Council endorse it. But Russia's U.N. ambassador later said a hastily scheduled Security Council meeting was canceled because the U.S. does not want to make the deal public.
Vitaly Churkin said there was no point in briefing the council if the U.S. did not want to say exactly what was in the documents outlining the deal.
"This briefing is not going to happen and mostly likely we're not going to have a resolution of the Security Council because the United States does not want to share those documents with the members of the Security Council and we believe that we cannot ask them to support a document which they haven't seen," Churkin said.
In Washington, a U.S. official said the session was canceled because the Russians were trying to force the U.S. to make the cease-fire deal public.
"The United States will not compromise operational security," said the official, who wasn't authorized to be quoted by name and demanded anonymity.
Damascus Fighting Flares
Earlier Friday, a Syrian opposition monitoring group reported that Russian troops deployed along Castello Road, which would mark the most overt participation of its ground forces in the Syrian war and underline Moscow's role as a major power broker. Russia intervened with its air force on the side of Assad's government last year, turning the tide of the war in his favor.
A main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said it rejects the presence of a "Russian occupation" force on the road and that U.N. peacekeepers should run the operation. The Russian Defense Ministry only mentioned that it had military observers on the road and said nothing about troop deployment.
Aleppo-based activist Bahaa al-Halaby said humanitarian conditions in the eastern neighborhoods of Syria's largest city are deteriorating. "There are wounded people and others who need food," he said.
The Syrian government, meanwhile, accused insurgents of firing a rocket that hit a church in the government-held side of Aleppo, causing material damage but no casualties.
Meanwhile, hourslong fighting and shelling that broke out in neighborhoods on the edges of Damascus on Friday were the heaviest in the Syrian capital in weeks, according to activists and residents. Insurgents shelled government-held areas in the eastern Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, wounding three people, Syrian state media said. The Syrian Arab News Agency said the shelling violates the cease-fire.
Rebels, however, claimed Syrian troops attacked the area first, launching a three-pronged assault that began in the early morning.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting between government troops and rebels is concentrated in the neighborhood of Jobar, next to Qaboun, where rebels have had a presence for years.
"The regime forces tried to advance under the cover of tanks and mortars," said Muhammad Abu Yaman, an activist with the opposition-aligned Jobar Media Center. "We never believed in the truce because we never trusted the regime."
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 militants, who are excluded from the cease-fire, are not present in the area, he said.
"This is one of the most serious violations of the cease-fire," al-Shami said via Skype.
The Syrian news agency accused the insurgents of launching the attack, triggering retaliation by government forces.
The truce has been holding despite some violations, with the Syrian opposition on Thursday reporting 46 cease-fire violations around the country. The Observatory on Thursday reported the first three deaths since the cease-fire went into effect on Monday night.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Moscow is using its influence on the Syrian government to make sure the cease-fire holds and wants the United States to do the same with regard to opposition groups.
U.N. officials said they were awaiting word from Russia and Syrian combatants on both sides that security and monitoring are in place to allow for deliveries of humanitarian aid into rebel-held parts of Aleppo city.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said U.N. officials are waiting for assurances that conditions are safe enough for convoys to proceed from Turkey to eastern Aleppo. Laerke said the trucks are in a "special customs zone" on the Turkish border.
On Friday, a coalition of at least 100 Syrian and international nongovernmental organizations released a statement urging the United States and Russia to pressure the government and Syrian opposition to allow aid to get through during the rare period of calm.
"Sporadic and temporary cessations of violence cannot become ends in themselves," said the statement, which was signed by organizations including Oxfam and Save the Children. "The lives of innocent Syrian civilians are in their hands."
U.S. Troops Join Turks
Separately, the Pentagon said U.S. special operations troops have joined Turkish soldiers and Syrian opposition groups to clear Islamic State fighters from northern Syria.
"Denying ISIL access to this critical border cuts off critical supply routes in and out of Iraq and Syria," Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State. There are about 40 special operations troops in the operation, said a U.S. official who asked to remain anonymous because the details aren't public.
The U.S. had previously disclosed that it would deploy up to 300 special operations troops in Syria to help opposition fighters combating Islamic State, but it wasn't previously known that they were working alongside Turkish troops who first crossed the border late last month, days after a suicide bomber killed at least 54 people at a wedding in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier that the U.S. had agreed to send the special operations troops into Syria with Turkish forces. A Turkish offensive has already pushed Islamic State from the border town of Jarablus, and Turkish tanks and armored units are advancing toward militant-held areas northwest of Aleppo.
The fight with Turkey along the northern border is part of broader U.S. efforts to counter the Islamic State and alleviate a humanitarian crisis in Syria
Information for this article was contributed by Bassem Mroue, Vladimir Isachenkov, Jamey Keaten, Nataliya Vasilyeva, Matthew Lee, Michael Astor, Bradley Klapper and staff members of The Associated Press; by Erin Cunningham, Zakaria Zakaria, Heba Habib and Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post; and by Nick Wadhams of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 09/17/2016
Print Headline: New stresses threaten aid, truce in Syria