Russia, U.S. reportedly agree Syria cease-fire intact

BEIRUT -- The fragile cease-fire that has held for more than four days across Syria faced a test Friday morning as fighting erupted just east of the capital, Damascus, and reportedly in the besieged northern city of Aleppo. The top diplomats from the U.S. and Russia spoke, however, and apparently agreed the truce was holding overall.

Rebel factions accused the Syrian army of trying to push into their territory in Jobar, a town which borders Damascus in the sprawling, opposition-held area of Ghouta. A Syrian military official, however, told French news agency AFP that rebels drew the army’s response by attempting to push west into Damascus from Jobar.

President Bashar Assad’s forces have hammered East Ghouta with artillery for years, desperate to reclaim the territory so close to Assad’s stronghold of Damascus. East Ghouta was the scene of one of the most dramatic chemical weapons attacks of the Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year. The U.S. government said the Assad regime was behind the attack that killed more than 1,400 people in Ghouta on Aug. 21, 2013.

Insurgents shelled government-held areas in the eastern Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, wounding three people, Syrian state media said. SANA said the shelling violated the cease-fire.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting between government troops and rebels is concentrated in the neighborhood of Jobar, next to Qaboun where rebels have had a presence for years.

Mazen al-Shami, an opposition activist near Damascus, said government forces tried to storm Jobar but were repelled by opposition fighters. Al Qaeda and ISIS militants, who are excluded from the cease-fire, are not present in the area, he said.

“This is one of the most serious violations of the cease-fire,” al-Shami said via Skype.

SANA accused the insurgents of launching the attack, triggering retaliation by government forces. 

Jobar is mainly held by the Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam faction, one of the biggest rebel groups in Syria, which is based in East Ghouta. The group falls under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, which has received U.S. support. Its commander, Mohammad Alloush, is the opposition’s chief negotiator in the talks in Geneva that yielded the cease-fire.

Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s most vital ally, again chided the U.S. on Friday, accusing America of failing to keep up its end of the cease-fire deal by forcing rebels fighting under the FSA banner to abide by the truce and disavow extremist groups.

“Although the ceasefire agreement is bilateral, only one side is truly implementing it,” Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Igor Konashenkov told French news agency AFP in a statement Friday.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov spoke on the phone, meanwhile, and the Russian reportedly pushed Kerry on the issue of U.S.-backed rebels refusing to distance themselves from al Qaeda and ISIS affiliated groups. Both men, however, agreed the cease-fire was largely holding, in spite of the flare-ups of violence, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Blocked road preventing aid from reaching Aleppo

Further to the north, around the embattled city of Aleppo, Russian troops deployed Friday morning along a main road leading into besieged rebel-held neighborhoods of the sprawling city ahead of the anticipated arrival of aid convoys.

Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian government forces that were stationed there had been replaced by Russian troops. He said aid was expected to enter rebel-held Aleppo later Friday.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer was on the vital road Thursday, standing in front of a checkpoint manned by Syrian troops, and she said they didn’t appear to be going anywhere fast at that stage.

In his phone conversation with Lavrov on Friday, Secretary Kerry pressed the urgency of getting aid trucks into Aleppo, according to the Foreign Ministry. 

Later Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry said Syrian army troops and heavy weapons had redeployed to Castello Road, which is the primary route into Damascus from the north.

The Russian military says the Syrian army withdrew its armor, artillery and other weapons north of the Castello Road early on Thursday, in line with the U.S.-Russia-brokered truce. Head of the Russian Reconciliation Center, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Savchenko, said the Syrian army moved the weapons back on Friday as the opposition units had failed to pull back theirs in lockstep.

Russian Col. Sergei Kapitsyn said in a video call from the Castello Road that the rebels fired on government positions overnight, wounding two soldiers and prompting the Syrian army to move their weapons back to the road to prevent the rebels from advancing.

The development was likely to dash any hopes of immediate aid deliveries to the hundreds of thousands of people virtually cut off from the world in Aleppo. 

Those aid deliveries are a key part of the U.S.-Russia deal that brought the cease-fire into effect Monday.

The plan, many details of which remain unknown, calls for the U.S. and Russia to being cooperating to target ISIS and al Qaeda-linked militants in Syria after a week of relative peace and successful aid deliveries.