BEIRUT — Heavy fighting broke out in the Syrian capital between government forces and an insurgent group Friday in some of the most serious clashes since a U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire went into effect four days earlier and brought relative calm to the war-ravaged country.
The fighting came as an opposition monitoring group reported that Russian troops have deployed along a main road leading into besieged rebel-held neighbourhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, signalling the possible arrival of aid convoys later Friday.
The fighting and shelling in neighbourhoods on the edges of Damascus were the heaviest in weeks, according to activists and residents, sparking concern the fragile ceasefire may be starting to fray.
Insurgents shelled government-held areas in the eastern Damascus neighbourhood of Qaboun, wounding three people, Syrian state media said. SANA said the shelling violates the ceasefire.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting between government troops and rebels is concentrated in the neighbourhood 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 Islamic State group militants, who are excluded from the ceasefire, are not present in the area, he said.
“This is one of the most serious violations of the ceasefire,” al-Shami said via Skype.
SANA accused the insurgents of launching the attack, triggering retaliation by government forces.
The truce has been holding despite some violations, with the Syrian opposition on Thursday reporting 46 cease-fire violations around the country. The Observatory on Thursday reported the first three deaths since the cease-fire went into effect.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Moscow is using its influence on the Syrian government to make sure the ongoing cease-fire holds and wants the United States to do the same with regards to opposition groups.
Outside Aleppo, Syrian forces that had been stationed along Castello road — a main artery into rebel-held neighbourhoods of the city — were replaced by Russian troops, Rami Abdurrahman of the Observatory said. Aid is expected to enter rebel-held Aleppo later Friday, he said.
One of the most powerful insurgent groups in Aleppo province denied that government forces had withdrawn from the Castello road. Nour el-Din el-Zinki group said in statement that their observation posts in the area have confirmed that government forces are still on the road.
Aleppo-based activist Bahaa al-Halaby also denied that government troops had withdrawn, adding that humanitarian conditions in the eastern neighbourhoods of Syria’s largest city are deteriorating.
“Humanitarian conditions are very difficult. There are wounded people and others who need food,” al-Halaby said
Aid deliveries are part of a U.S.-Russia deal that imposed the ceasefire.
United Nations officials said they were awaiting word from Russia and Syrian combatants on both sides that security and monitoring are in place to allow for deliveries of humanitarian aid into rebel-held parts of Aleppo city.
OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said “it is my understanding” that UN officials are waiting for assurances that conditions are safe enough for convoys to proceed from Turkey to eastern Aleppo. Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Laerke said the trucks are in a “special customs zone” on the Turkish border.
Laerke also clarified UN comments a day earlier, saying that the UN does not require authorization from Syria’s government for cross-border aid deliveries under the terms of a Security Council resolution from 2014.
He specified that such “facilitation letters,” or permits, from the Syrian government are only needed for aid deliveries within Syria — not aid from other countries.
Jan Egeland, a top UN co-ordinator for aid to Syria, said in a text message that the UN is waiting for assurances on “monitoring arrangements.”
Russia’s military announced Thursday evening that Syrian government forces had begun withdrawing from Castello road but did not confirm if Russian troops would be stationed there. The Pentagon said it had no indication of a withdrawal.
Russia’s deployment on the road would mark the most overt participation of its ground forces in the Syrian war and underlines the country’s role as a major power broker. Russia intervened with its air force on the side of President Bashar Assad’s government last year, turning the tide of the war in his favour.
A main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said it rejects the presence of a “Russian occupation” force on the road and that UN peacekeepers should run the operation to guarantee the delivery of aid.
Military Media, the media arm of Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah, said demonstrators from the Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahraa in Aleppo province have started a march toward Castello road to demand that no aid be allowed into eastern Aleppo until aid is sent to two Shiite villages besieged by insurgents in the nearby province of Idlib.