US hopes for Russian help in Syria falter

A view of what is believed to be the road that civilians in Aleppo must use to leave rebel-held areas. The Syrian government has told residents to leave the city as the army cuts off supply routes to the east.
A view of what is believed to be the road that civilians in Aleppo must use to leave rebel-held areas. The Syrian government has told residents to leave the city as the army cuts off supply routes to the east.PHOTO: REUTERS

Plan to seek military cooperation against ISIS hit after Syria cuts off supply routes to Aleppo

GENEVA/WASHINGTON • United States Secretary of State John Kerry's attempt to elicit Russian military cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria has suffered two potentially crippling blows.

First, the Syrian army said it has cut off all supply routes into the eastern part of the city of Aleppo - Syria's most important opposition stronghold - and President Bashar al-Assad's government has asked residents to leave the city.

That move, US officials speaking on condition of anonymity said on Thursday, appeared to be an effort to pre-empt a US demand that Russia and Syria reopen a major road into the divided northern city before talks could begin on creating a joint intelligence centre to coordinate air attacks against ISIS.

Then, Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, announced on Thursday that it was terminating its relationship with the global network created by Osama bin Laden and changing its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to remove what it called a pretext by the US and other countries to attack Syrians.

Although one US official called it "a change in name only", the move complicates the American proposal to limit the Russians and Syrians to targeting only Nusra and ISIS and not other rebel groups supported by Washington and its allies in the coalition against ISIS.

"By disavowing its ties to Al-Qaeda - which, incidentally, it did with Al-Qaeda's blessing - Nusra has made it harder to isolate it from more moderate groups, some of whose members may join it now because it's more powerful than some of the groups they belong to now," said the official.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Washington has been clear about its concerns over the announcement of the humanitarian corridor and that its view of the Nusra Front had not changed despite its name change.

"But we also remain committed to the proposals reached by the United States and Russia to better enforce the cessation of hostilities in Syria and provide the space needed for a resumption of political talks. If fully implemented in good faith, they can achieve a measure of success that has eluded us thus far," Mr Kirby told Reuters.

Aid agencies yesterday called on Syria's government to end its encirclement of rebel-held east Aleppo as a handful of civilians managed to use humanitarian corridors to flee the ruined city.

Pro-regime forces have surrounded Aleppo's eastern districts since July 17, leaving an estimated 250,000 trapped without reliable access to food or medical aid.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'US hopes for Russian help in Syria falter'. Print Edition | Subscribe