DAMASCUS: UN convoys delivering aid to thousands of besieged Syrians were due to set out on Wednesday, but hopes for lasting peace dimmed the day after Turkey called for a ground operation in its war-torn neighbor.
Syria’s government has approved access to seven besieged areas, including the city of Madaya where dozens of people are thought to have died from starvation, a spokeswoman for the UN’s humanitarian affairs office said.
Speaking in Damascus, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said aid convoys would be sent on Wednesday in what will be a test of whether the warring parties will allow in humanitarian supplies.
“It is the duty of the government of Syria to want to reach every Syrian person wherever they are and allow the UN to bring humanitarian aid,” he said after meeting Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
“Tomorrow we test this,” he said on Tuesday.
Almost half a million people in Syria are in areas under siege, according to the UN, after almost five years of civil war between Syria’s government and rebel forces.
A Red Crescent source said the first convoys would head for the rebel-besieged Shiite villages of Fuaa and Kafraya in the north, and to Madaya and Zabadani, which are encircled by the army.
Allowing in humanitarian aid was an important element in negotiations to clinch a ceasefire across war-torn Syria, but both sides have cast doubt on whether it will be implemented.
Seventeen world powers agreed to a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” across Syria within a week under a deal struck in Munich last Thursday to end a war that has killed more than 260,000 people.
But the bombings of at least five medical facilities and two schools in northern Syria, which the UN said Monday killed 50 people including children, have dimmed hopes for a ceasefire.
Under the deal, a new round of peace talks will be held in Geneva on February 25.
Ceasefire in doubt
“I can’t say categorically that a week from last Thursday there must be a cessation of hostilities,” deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
“I’m not trying to excuse the delay in any way, shape or form. I think we’re going to continue to pursue, aggressively, the cessation of hostilities.”
Syria’s envoy to the UN Bashar Jaafari on Tuesday also warned “a ceasefire would take much longer than a week.”
The school and hospital bombings took place around Syria’s second city of Aleppo, where the government has been pressing a major offensive against the rebels backed by Russian air strikes.
Neither the UN nor the US has directly accused Moscow of carrying out those air strikes, but the State Department said Monday the attacks cast doubt on Russia’s willingness or ability to stop the fighting.
US President Barak Obama said the ceasefire would be difficult to achieve while Russia’s bombing campaign continues.
“If Russia continues indiscriminate bombing of the sort that we’ve been seeing, I think it’s fair to say that you’re not going to see any take-up by the opposition,” he said Tuesday.
Russia denied it had bombed any hospital, calling such reports “unsubstantiated accusations.”
Turkey, however, has branded Russia’s air war in support of Assad as “barbaric” and is now pushing to send in troops to Syria with the help of the United States and Gulf states.
“We want a ground operation with our international allies,” a senior Turkish official told reporters in Istanbul.
“There is not going to be a unilateral military operation from Turkey to Syria,” the official emphasized, but added: “Without a ground operation it is impossible to stop the fighting in Syria.”