France makes new push for Aleppo ceasefire

Civilians watch as a tractor clears the rubble following Syrian government forces airstrikes in the rebel held neighbourhood of Tariq a-Bab in Aleppo on Sept 24, 2016.
Civilians watch as a tractor clears the rubble following Syrian government forces airstrikes in the rebel held neighbourhood of Tariq a-Bab in Aleppo on Sept 24, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS/MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - France is to launch a new push for United Nations backing for a ceasefire in Syria that would allow aid into the city of Aleppo after some of the heaviest bombing of the war.

As diplomatic efforts resumed, a Syrian military source said army commanders had decided to scale back air strikes and shelling in Aleppo to alleviate the humanitarian situation there.

The Syrian army command said civilians in rebel-held eastern Aleppo were being used as human shields and a reduced level of bombardment would allow people to leave for safer areas.

France said Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault would travel to Russia and the United States on Thursday and Friday to try to persuade both sides to adopt a Security Council resolution to impose a new truce.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry, architects of a ceasefire that collapsed last month amid bitter recriminations, discussed Syria by telephone on Wednesday, but no details emerged.

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that Lavrov would meet Ayrault in Moscow on Thursday.

The French minister's trip comes after the collapse of a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia last month, which has been followed by intense Syrian and Russian bombing of rebel-held areas of Aleppo. Washington broke off talks with Moscow on Monday, accusing Russia of breaking its commitments.

For the past two weeks, a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive has been under way to capture eastern Aleppo and crush the last urban stronghold of a revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011.

"This trip is in the framework of efforts by France to get a resolution adopted at the U.N. Security Council opening the path for a ceasefire in Aleppo and aid access for populations that need it so much," the French foreign ministry said.

The Security Council began negotiations on Monday on a French and Spanish draft resolution that urges Russia and the United States to ensure an immediate truce in Aleppo and to "put an end to all military flights over the city".

Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said on Monday that Moscow was engaged in discussions on the draft text even if he was not especially enthusiastic about its language.

The draft text, seen by Reuters, urges Russia and the United States "to ensure the immediate implementation of the cessation of hostilities, starting with Aleppo, and, to that effect, to put an end to all military flights over the city."

The draft also asks UN chief Ban Ki-moon to propose options for U.N.-supervised monitoring of a truce and threatens to "take further measures" in the event of non-compliance by"any party to the Syrian domestic conflict".

A French diplomatic source said: "It's all that's left. We're not fools. The Russians aren't going to begin respecting human rights from one day to the next, but it's all we have to put pressure on them."

GULF STATES

The collapse of the latest Syria ceasefire has heightened the possibility that Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar - backers of Syrian rebels - might arm the opposition with shoulder-fired missiles to defend themselves against Syrian and Russian warplanes, US officials have said.

Qatar's foreign minister said outside powers need to act fast to protect Syrians because foreign military backing for the government is "changing the equation" of the war.

In Aleppo itself, half of the estimated 275,000 Syrians besieged in the rebel-held eastern part of the city want to leave, the United Nations said.

Food supplies are running short and people are driven to burning plastic for fuel. Mothers were reportedly tying ropes around their stomachs or drinking large amounts of water to reduce the feeling of hunger and prioritise food for their children, the United Nations said. "An assessment conducted in eastern Aleppo city concluded that 50 per cent of the inhabitants expressed willingness to leave if they can," the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in Geneva.

A United Nations expert said that analysis of satellite imagery of a deadly and disputed attack on an aid convoy in Syria last month showed that it was an air strike.

Some 20 people were killed in the attack on the UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy at Urem Al-Kubra near Aleppo.

The United States blamed two Russian warplanes which it said were in the skies above the area at the time of the incident. Moscow denies this and says the convoy caught fire.

"With our analysis we determined it was an air strike and I think multiple other sources have said that as well," Lars Bromley, research adviser at UNOSAT, told a news briefing.

In northern Syria, rebels were expecting stiff resistance from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in their attempt to capture a village that is of great symbolic significance to the jihadists, a rebel commander said.

With Turkish backing, rebels fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner have advanced to within a few kilometres (miles) of Dabiq, the site of an apocalyptic prophecy central to the militant group's ideology.