Beirut (AFP) – As world powers backing peace talks continue to insist Syria’s ceasefire is holding, residents of battered second city Aleppo can only express stunned disbelief.
“I don’t know what truce they’re talking about. There’s no truce here,” Abu Mohammed, a father-of-four living in the rebel-held east of the city, told AFP.
“The shelling and rocket fire don’t stop, it’s as if we were in a world war,” the 40-year-old shop owner said.
Two months after Moscow and Washington brokered the historic ceasefire in a bid to finally resolve Syria’s five-year conflict, it has effectively collapsed in large parts of the country.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said that by Wednesday the ceasefire was being fully respected in only about 20 percent of the area it covers.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said significant breaches have taken place around Damascus, in Homs and Latakia provinces and, most importantly, in and around Aleppo.
The northern city, once Syria’s economic hub, has been divided between the rebel-controlled east and regime-held west since 2012.
Following a lull in fighting after the ceasefire took effect on February 27, violence has intensified in recent days, with at least 100 civilians killed in air strikes, shelling and rocket fire since Friday.
“Those killed are civilians, mostly women and children, so where is this truce?” asked Mohammed Kaheel, the head of forensic medicine in east Aleppo.
In the government-controlled west, residents are just as livid after coming under heavy rebel fire in recent days.
“Truce! Now there’s an infuriating word Aleppo residents can’t stand,” 27-year-old taxi driver Saad Aliya said.
– ‘Not ready’ to bury truce –
“I don’t think a single one of the fighters in Aleppo wants a truce. They’re all killers and they’re all killing us!”
“If this is a truce, then — we beg you — bring back the war.”
The ceasefire was followed by the announcement of another round of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Syria’s opposition.
But the talks, due to end on Wednesday, failed to get off the ground, with Syria’s main opposition group leaving last week in protest at escalating fighting and restrictions on humanitarian access.
Still, no one has been willing to pronounce the ceasefire officially over.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday expressed “grave concern” over the fighting in Aleppo but said in other areas the truce was “largely holding”.
“We’re not ready to declare this thing dead,” Toner said.
In Moscow, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also insisted on Wednesday that it was still in effect.
“The ceasefire is holding but is seriously challenged practically on a daily basis,” she said.
Even Syria’s main opposition group for the Geneva talks, the High Negotiations Committee, has so far refrained from burying the ceasefire, though its chief Riad Hijab on Wednesday condemned “severe violations of the truce by the regime”.
Experts say world powers are anxious to keep the ceasefire alive, and with it any hope of bringing an end to a conflict that has left 270,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.
Washington has used its influence with the Syrian opposition and Moscow its alliance with Assad to convince both sides to attend the talks.
– Keeping talks alive –
“The rebels and political opposition are endlessly denouncing ceasefire violations but cannot… formally declare an end to the ceasefire,” Syria expert Thomas Pierret said.
“The Russians and the Americans are maintaining the illusion that the truce is still in place,” he said.
Washington is “so desperate to keep the political process alive that they are ready to disguise the reality of the ceasefire collapsing,” he said.
The United States may not even be opposed to major regime operations against Aleppo, Pierret said, as it “would have the advantage of forcing the opposition to make a concession on Assad’s departure.”
Assad’s fate has been a major sticking point in negotiations, with the HNC insisting any peace deal must include his departure, while Damascus says his future is non-negotiable.
The peace talks are set to resume on May 10, Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the Interfax news agency on Wednesday.
In regime-controlled Damascus, residents were more optimistic the truce could last.
“Each day the truce holds gives us more hope,” said Muadh Raghi, a stationary shop salesman in the city’s south.
But in eastern Aleppo, Abu Mohamed was cynical, saying the only thing holding the ceasefire together was pressure from outside powers.
“If the truce holds, it’s between the US and Russia, not between the opposition and the regime.”