Hope for Syria truce dims as U.S., Russia disagree

Hopes of securing a temporary truce in Syria within a week dimmed Saturday as Syrian government forces tightened the noose around rebel-held parts of Aleppo and Russia's foreign minister put the chances of a quick truce at less than 50 per cent.

Russia's foreign minister puts the chances of a quick truce at less than 50%

Syrian government forces patrol after taking control of the village of Kiffin, on the northern outskirts of the embattled city of Aleppo on the road leading to Gaziantep, from opposition forces on Feb. 11. Russia, the U.S., and others were talking about the potential for a ceasefire. (George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)

Hopes of securing a temporary truce in Syria within a week dimmed Saturday as Syrian government forces tightened the noose around rebel-held parts of Aleppo and Russia's foreign minister put the chances of a quick truce at less than 50 per cent.

His comments, and strong words from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, underscored deep U.S.-Russian disagreements over Syria.

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Further complicating the picture, Turkey's foreign minister said his country and Saudi Arabia may launch ground operations against ISIS in Syria, Turkish media reported Saturday.

Diplomats from countries with interests in Syria's five-year civil war — including the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia — agreed Friday to work toward a temporary "cessation of hostilities" within a week. They also agreed to "accelerate and expand" deliveries of humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian communities beginning this week.

Still, officials acknowledged from the start that the test would be turning commitments on paper into reality on the ground — and it wasn't clear whether deep differences regarding the truce and which groups would be eligible for it could be overcome.

The truce deal in Munich came as Syrian government forces, aided by a Russian bombing campaign, are trying to encircle rebels in Aleppo, the country's largest city, and cut off their supply route to Turkey.

Speaking Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — pressed to say how confident he is that a "cessation of hostilities" will be implemented within a week — replied: "49" out of 100 per cent. He indicated that Russia remains deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions.

Lavrov said everyday military co-operation between the U.S. and Russia in particular is "the key tool" to ensuring the delivery of humanitarian supplies and an end to hostilities in Syria. But he complained that co-ordination hasn't gone beyond an agreement to avoid in-air accidents.

"If we are moving closer to practical goals of (a) truce, then without co-operation between the military nothing will work out," Lavrov said.

Lavrov said comments by U.S. officials raised the impression that their aim was to stop Russia's military operation in Syria while the U.S.-led coalition's continues — "although we are fighting the very same ... organizations which the UN Security Council has designated as terrorist organizations."

Two Syrian women and a boy wait in front of Oncupinar crossing gate, near the town of Kilis, to return to Syria on Feb. 9. Around 30,000 Syrians are at the Turkish border after fleeing a Russia-backed regime offensive on the northern region of Aleppo, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the deal with Lavrov and others, said after Lavrov's pessimistic assessment about the proposed truce that "we will, we will make it work."

Still, Kerry's address earlier Saturday to the Munich conference underscored the persistent tensions between Russia and the West over Syria.

He repeated allegations that Russian airstrikes in Syria have not been directed at terrorists but rather at moderate opposition groups supported by the U.S. and its European and Arab partners. Kerry also said Russia would have to change tactics if the agreement for a temporary truce in Syria is to actually take effect in the planned time.

"To date, the vast majority, in our opinion, of Russia's attacks have been against legitimate opposition groups. And to adhere to the agreement it made, we think it is critical that Russia's targeting change," Kerry said. "If people who want to be part of the conversation are being bombed, we're not going to have much of a process."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chat during a meeting of the International Syrian Support Group in Munich, Germany. Both countries have said they will step up the delivery of aid to Syrians. (Alexander Beier/Getty Images)

The opposition "may be pushed back here and there, but they are not going to surrender," Kerry said.

The State Department said Kerry and Lavrov met again on Saturday afternoon to go over plans for a task force to work out the details for the truce and also briefly discussed the organization of a second task force to co-ordinate humanitarian aid.

It remains unclear whether fighters in Syria will adhere to a truce. 

Government troops capture village

Syrian government forces on Saturday captured another village near Aleppo, tightening the noose around rebel-held parts of the northern city, Syrian state TV and an opposition activist group said.

State TV and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops captured Tamoura Saturday around noon, amid intense shelling and air raids by Russian warplanes.

Syrian troops have been advancing under cover of Russian airstrikes with the aim of besieging rebel-held parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. If they are able to do so, it will be the biggest defeat for insurgents since the conflict began in March 2011.

After capturing Tamoura, the troops still have to take several more villages and towns, including Hayan, Anadan, Hreitan and Kfar Hamra, in order to completely encircle the Aleppo rebels.

Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV said troops are now overlooking the town of Hayan and parts of Anadan. The Lebanese militant group is fighting alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Warplanes carry out air raids

Al-Manar later aired live footage from an area overlooking Anadan in which Syrian troops were heavily pounding the area with artillery shells and white smoke could be seen billowing from several spots on the open area. Al-Manar has a reporter embedded with Syrian troops in Aleppo province.

To the north, warplanes carried out more than 20 air raids on the town of Tel Rifaat, a stronghold of the powerful ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group, according to the Observatory and activist Amer Hassan who is currently in the nearby town of Azaz. Tel Rifaat is about 15 km from the border with Turkey.

"Today is one of the worst days since the revolution began," said Hassan via Skype, adding that activists counted 46 air raids on Tel Rifaat alone Saturday. "We have not seen such intense air raids before."

He added that Tel Rifaat is one of the biggest strongholds for militants in Aleppo province adding that "if Tel Rifaat falls it means that all northern parts of Aleppo will follow."

Turkish troops shell Kurdish militia

In another development, Turkish troops fired artillery shells at areas in northern Syria that are held by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

The Observatory said the artillery strikes targeted the village of Malkiyeh and the Mannagh air base, which was captured by Kurdish fighters and their allies earlier this week. Hassan, the activist in Azaz, confirmed that Turkish troops have shelled the air base.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confirmed on Saturday that Turkish forces had struck Kurdish YPG militia targets in northern Syria and demanded that the group withdraw from the area it has recently captured.

"We will retaliate against every step (by the YPG)," he told reporters in comments shown live by state broadcaster TRT Haber. "The YPG will immediately withdraw from Azaz and the surrounding area and will not go close to it again."

Army of Islam kills Syrian troops

Also Saturday, an official with the rebel Army of Islam group that controls areas near Damascus said that they killed scores of soldiers on Feb. 7, when they ambushed an army force that was trying to infiltrate into Tel Soran near the Damascus suburb of Douma.

The Observatory said last Sunday's attack killed 76 government troops, adding that 45 were killed in the ambush and another 31 died after entering a mine field.

In the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent transported four trucks of aid into an area on the edge of Douma. Operations director Hazem Baqleh said the supplies included baby formula and medicine for people suffering from chronic diseases.

UN delivers humanitarian aid

Also on Saturday, the U.N. refugees agency, UNRWA, said it was able to deliver "urgently needed humanitarian supplies" to civilian residents in the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus for the first time in nine months.

UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness said that although the U.N. agency members did not enter the camp itself, they were able to reach the nearby area of Yalda, where 900 families from Yarmouk, Yalda and the neighbouring areas of Babila and Beit Sahem were provided with 35-kilogram  food parcels.

Gunness said despite the fact that some humanitarian assistance has entered these areas since the last UNRWA distribution in June "humanitarian needs remain acute."

"There are clear indications that disease is on the rise, particularly among the most vulnerable such as children. There is an acute lack of medicines to treat them," Gunness said in a statement.

The camp was captured by the extremist Islamic State group in April last year.

In the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent transported four trucks of aid into an area on the edge of Douma. Operations Director at the SARC Hazem Baqleh said the supplies included baby formula and medicine for people suffering from chronic diseases.