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Danziger: Long Way Home

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.com.

Danziger: Sand Trap

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.com.

Aid For Syria Stuck With Rising Violence Undermining Truce

BEIRUT/CILVEGOZU, Turkey (Reuters) – Aid for the divided Syrian city of Aleppo was stuck on the Turkish border on the fifth day of a fragile ceasefire on Friday with rival factions arguing over how the supplies are to be delivered and violence increasingly undermining the truce.

The provision of aid to what was Syria’s largest city before the war is a critical test of the ceasefire, brokered by the United States and Russia a week ago with the aim of reviving talks on ending the conflict.

Humanitarian access to Aleppo hinges on control of the main road into the besieged rebel-held part of the city, divided between the government and rebels who have been battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad for more than five years. The Castello Road has become a major frontline in the war.

Russia said the Syrian army had begun to withdraw from the road on Thursday, but insurgent groups in Aleppo said they had seen no such move and would not pull back from their own positions around the road until it did so.

“By today this morning nothing had happened on the Castello Road … There is nothing new in Aleppo,” Zakaria Malahifji, of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim, told Reuters by phone.

The Kremlin said it was using its influence to try to ensure the Syrian army fully implemented the ceasefire and that it hoped the United States would use its own influence with rebel groups too.

“In general, we can still state that the (ceasefire) process is moving forward, despite some setbacks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

U.N. FRUSTRATION

Hundreds of protesters from the Shi’ite Muslim villages of Nubul and al Zahra – which lie in government-held territory – were meanwhile heading towards the Castello Road with the aim of blocking it and obstructing the passage of aid trucks, an organization that monitors the war said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said they had come out to prevent aid entering rebel-held eastern Aleppo until there were guarantees that supplies would also be sent to the besieged Shi’ite villages of Kefraya and al-Foua which have been surrounded by insurgents since April 2015.

The United Nations, which says it asked the Syrian government for permission to reach all besieged areas, has voiced increasing frustration in recent days at the failure of the Syrian government to allow access.

“In order to actually initiate the actual movement of these convoys (to besieged areas) we need the facilitation letters. They have not come,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs, told a briefing in Geneva.

“It’s highly frustrating … and of course we urge the authorities and everyone with influence over those authorities to push for these letters to materialize as soon as possible.”

Two convoys of aid have been waiting since early on Tuesday in no-man’s land at the Turkish border for permission to travel into Syria. A U.N. spokesman said the first convoy of trucks was carrying flour for more than 150,000 people, while the second was carrying food rations for 35,000 people for a month.

About 300,000 people are thought to be living in eastern Aleppo, while more than one million live in the government-controlled western half of the city.

TRUCE VIOLATIONS

The government and rebels have accused each other of violating the ceasefire, although the U.S. State Department said on Thursday it was largely holding and that both Washington and Moscow believed it was worth continuing.

The United States and Russia have backed opposing sides in the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forced 11 million from their homes, and created the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War Two.

After three days which saw a significant decrease in violence and no deaths, the first civilians since the start of the truce were killed on Thursday.

Three more died and 13 were injured in air strikes in rebel-held Idlib province on Friday, the Observatory said. A number of shells were also fired by insurgents into besieged al-Foua and Kefraya.

A building belonging to the Syrian Civil Defense, a rescue organization also known as the “White Helmets” was also hit in overnight air strikes, the group and the Observatory said.

Violent clashes and shells hit areas east of the Syrian capital Damascus on Friday. Residents in the city center were woken up by a large explosion, a witness said, and shells fell on the eastern gate of Damascus’s central Old City area.

The Britain-based Observatory said the violence stemmed from clashes between insurgents and Syrian government forces and their allies in the Jobar district on the eastern outskirts of the capital amid a government effort to advance in the area.

The Syrian military said rebels had attacked military positions east of the city.

Washington hopes the ceasefire will pave the way to a resumption of political talks. But a similar agreement unraveled earlier this year, and Russia’s intervention a year ago in support of Assad has given it critical leverage over the diplomatic process.

The United States and Russia will brief United Nations Security Council members behind closed doors on Friday, diplomats said, on the deal the pair agreed to try and put Syria’s peace process back on track.

Russia is pushing for the U.N. Security Council to adopt a draft resolution next week endorsing the deal.

Assad, appears as uncompromising as ever. He vowed again this week to win back the entire country, which has been splintered into areas controlled by the state, a constellation of rebel factions, Islamic State jihadists, and Kurdish militia fighters.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Tom Miles in Geneva, Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow and Michelle Nicols; Writing by Nick Tattersall, editing by Peter Millership)

Photo: A Civil Defence member reacts in a damaged site near the frame of a burnt vehicle after an airstrike on al-Jalaa street in the rebel held city of Idlib, Syria. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

Kerry Defends Syria Deal With Russia, Says Obama Backs Plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday sought to diffuse criticism of a U.S.-Russian ceasefire agreement on Syria arguing that without it violence would increase significantly with many more Syrians slaughtered or forced to flee the war-torn country.

The deal struck between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday agreed to a seven-day period of reduced violence and increased humanitarian aid deliveries.

If the truce holds, U.S. and Russian militaries would begin to coordinate air strikes against Nusra Front and Islamic State militants in an agreed area.

The plan aims to bring together the warring Syrian sides for talks on a political transition, which would involve Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stepping aside.

“It’s a last chance to be able to hold Syria together,” Kerry said in an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition. “If you fail to get a cessation in place now and we cannot get to the table, then the fighting is going to increase significantly.”

He added: “What’s the alternative? The alternative is to allow us to go from 450,000 people who have been slaughtered to how many thousands more? That Aleppo gets completely overrun? That the Russians and Assad simply bomb indiscriminately for days to come and we sit there and do nothing?”

The five-year war has killed an estimated 430,000 people since the start of the conflict, with roughly 11 million people made homeless in the world’s worst refugee crisis.

Senior U.S. military and intelligence have criticized the plan saying Russia cannot be trusted. The plan envisions the U.S. military sharing targeting information for strikes against militants with Russian forces.

Kerry said the agreement had the support of U.S. President Barack Obama, with whom he met on Tuesday.

“Well, the president of the United States is ready and I think the military therefore will be ready,” he said.

“Nobody’s asking people to abrogate our standards, but it is important for us to keep our part of the bargain,” Kerry added.

The agreement marks the biggest test yet by Washington that it can work with Moscow to end a war that President Vladimir Putin transformed a year ago when he sent warplanes to join the fight on Assad’s side

Kerry said moderate opposition fighters, backed by the United States and Gulf allies, had been losing ground to Russian-backed government forces.

“The dynamic of Assad hammering them and Russia hammering them is going to drive them into the hands of Nusra and ISIL,” said Kerry, “And you’ll have a greater degree of radicalization of increased intensity.”

Twenty-four hours after the truce took effect, senior State Department officials said there had been a reduction in violence.

U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura declared that U.N. aid access should be possible soon, including to eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held half of the city that is under blockade.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the most intense fighting since the ceasefire began took place on Tuesday night in the village of Maan in Hama province. Insurgents operating in the Hama area included jihadists and nationalist rebels fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner.

It was not immediately clear whether the insurgents were part of the ceasefire, although the senior U.S. official said all groups except Nusra and Islamic State had to abide by the cessation of hostilities rules.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Michael Perry)

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shake hands at the conclusion of their news conference following their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland where they discussed the crisis in Syria September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque