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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Syria Cease-fire Not Dead Yet, Diplomats Contend

By Steve Herman 20 September 2016

Not dead – yet. That is the assertion of several key diplomats about the cease-fire in Syria following the attack Monday on an aid convoy.

The 20 member states and organizations of the International Syria Support Group met for about an hour Tuesday in New York and decided to convene again Friday.

"They agreed that, despite continued violence, there was still an imperative to pursue a nationwide cessation of hostilities based on the arrangement reached last week in Geneva between the United States and Russia," said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

"The cease-fire is not dead," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters as he emerged from the ISSG meeting.

It is widely believed that either Syrian or Russian aircraft carried out an airstrike on the 31-vehicle aid caravan that was headed to Aleppo, Syria, from the Turkish border.

Eighteen of the trucks were hit. The attack killed 20 civilians and the head of a local Syrian Red Crescent office, the humanitarian organization said. The strike again prompted the U.N. to suspend all aid shipments into the country.

Russia's Defense Ministry denied there was an attack and said the trucks caught fire.

"We've established it was not a fire," said U.N. humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke in Geneva.

Syria's military also denied any of its aircraft was involved in an attack.

The convoy's "movements were only known by the militants who were in control of the area," said Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov in Moscow.

Later, the Russian Defense Ministry commented that drone footage showed the convoy was being accompanied by militants driving a pickup truck with a heavy mortar gun.

"It was certainly not the [U.S.-led] coalition who struck from the air. It does look like an airstrike," U.S. Central Command spokesman Colonel John Thomas told reporters during a telephone briefing. "The only other entities that fly in Syria are Russia and Syria."

The U.N. said its officials in Syria were informed of the attacks as they unfolded.

"Despite our efforts and communications with parties to the conflict, further attacks continued throughout the night, hampering efforts to reach and attend to the wounded," said a statement by U.N. aid coordinators Massimo Diana and Kevin Kennedy.

The attack was an outrage, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an address to the General Assembly.

He called the humanitarian workers' attackers cowards and said "accountability for crimes such as these is essential."

Leaders such as French President Francois Hollande, at the annual General Assembly, blamed Syria's government for the cease-fire's failure.

"I say to the Syrian government's foreign backers that they must compel the regime to enforce peace," he said in his address to the world body. "Otherwise, they will bear the responsibility for the splitting up of the country and the chaos."

"The Syrian government sent a very clear message by attacking the aid convoy and bombing Aleppo," Middle East scholar Daniel Serwer from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University told VOA. "The Russians don't seem able or willing to restrain [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad. The Americans aren't willing to intervene."

After seven days of relative calm and a resumption of critical aid, according to the terms of the cease-fire deal, the United States and Russia were to coordinate separate strikes on Islamic State and al-Qaida-affiliated rebels.

That was viewed as a remarkable diplomatic accomplishment, considering Washington and Moscow have not been allies in any hostilities since World War II.

"Washington and Moscow have different long-term interests in Syria, support different sides of the war, and no longer trust each other based on recent breaches of the Syrian cease-fire and broader disagreements over Ukraine, the Baltic states and cyberattacks," Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, told VOA on Tuesday.

Syrian state media quoted Assad as saying separate airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition that hit Syrian positions near Deir Ezzor on Saturday were a "flagrant aggression" that showed support for terrorists.

The airstrikes near Deir Ezzor may have hit a battalion of Syrian prisoners, VOA learned. U.S. officials have said Syrian government prisoners may be fighting for the regime as an alternative to being jailed.

The prisoners appeared to have been providing an "extra layer of protection" outside the perimeter of the Syrian forces. A senior defense official told VOA a brigadier general would begin investigating the strike "very soon."

The U.S. has expressed condolences for the losses suffered in the strike and is still working to determine what happened.

VOA's Carla Babb contributed to this report from the Pentagon. VOA's Nike Ching contributed from the State Department.

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