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Executive Summary for February 18th

We review developments in Syria, including the delivery of aid to five besieged communities, the cross-border entry of hundreds of rebel fighters from Turkey into northern Syria and the sharp uptick in Russian bombing in the face of a proposed “cessation of hostilities”.

Published on Feb. 18, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Aid Reaches Five Besieged Syrian Towns

Some 100 trucks loaded with emergency food and medical aid began deliveries on Wednesday to tens of thousands of people in five besieged areas across the country.

The deliveries mark the first major distribution of aid since world powers in the so-called International Syria Support Group (ISSG) agreed in Munich last week to push for immediate humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas across the country.

International aid convoys carrying food and medical supplies for some 100,000 people left on Wednesday toward the western towns of Madaya and Zabadani, the northwestern towns of Fuaa and Kafraya, and the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh.

The delivery of aid in Madaya was the community’s first in nearly one month, although U.N. officials said ambulances with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have made frequent visits to the besieged community over the past month, evacuating some of the most urgent cases, the New York Times reports.

Aid did not arrive to the city of Deir Ezzor, besieged by both the government and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), but U.N. officials said aid was expected to arrive to the community within the next few days.

The aid convoys rolled out just one day before members of the ISSG are set to meet in Geneva to discuss expanding humanitarian actions in Syria, facilitating access to aid to the at least 18 besieged towns and inaccessible areas across the country.

The U.N. estimates there are 486,700 people in around 18 besieged areas of Syria, and 4.6 million people in hard-to-reach areas. In some, starvation deaths and severe malnutrition have been reported.

The ISSG, which is made up of at least 17 countries including the U.S. and Russia, hopes that access to aid will help bring about a “cessation of hostilities” later this week, but there has been little indication that any of the warring parties and their backers are ready to stop fighting.

Hundreds of Rebels Enter Syria From Turkey: Monitor

Nearly 500 rebels on Wednesday crossed the Turkish border into Syria, heading for the town of Azaz where rebel forces have suffered setbacks after Kurdish advances, Agence France-Presse reports.

“At least 500 rebels have crossed the Bab al-Salam border crossing on their way to the town of Azaz, from which they want to help the insurgents in the face of gains made by Kurdish forces in the north of the provinces,” said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Abdulrahman said the rebels, all of them armed, included Islamist fighters.

Just three days before, some 350 rebels reportedly passed through the Atme border crossing into Syria carrying heavy and light weapons.

Opposition forces have lost ground in northern Aleppo over the past few weeks, after the Syrian army, backed by heavy Russian airstrikes and allied militias, began an offensive to retake Syria’s largest city.

In the northern countryside, rebels now only hold the town of Azaz along the Turkish border and the town of Marea to the south, encircled by Kurdish forces to the west and ISIS militants to the east.

U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon warned on Wednesday that the continued escalation of fighting in Syria poses a serious threat to efforts aimed at reconvening peace talks and finding a political solution to the five-year-old crisis.

Russian Airstrikes Intensifying: U.S. Military

The U.S. military said on Wednesday that Russian airstrikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad have intensified despite efforts by the ISSG to implement a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria by the end of this week.

World powers agreed last week in Munich to a limited cease-fire in Syria by Friday, but the agreement was not signed by any of the warring parties.

And although several Western countries had hoped a pause in ground fighting would bring about a halt in Russian bombing, Moscow has said the “cessation” does not apply to its airstrikes, which have shifted the momentum of the civil war over the past few months in Assad’s favour.

“There has been no lessening of the intensity of the Russian and the (Syrian) regime air campaign,” said Colonel Steve Warren, spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. “If anything it’s increased.”

The Syrian government has also increased its use of barrel bombs, according to Warren.

“We don’t see any notable preparation for the temporary cessation of hostilities.”

Missile attacks in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria on Monday hit four medical facilities and two schools, killing more than 50 civilians.

The U.S. coalition spokesperson said Russian and Syrian planes had been conducting airstrikes in the area where hospitals were hit, although he was not sure which country was responsible for Monday’s strikes.

“Russian and (Syrian) regime aircraft conducted strikes in those areas, and those hospitals were hit,” he said.

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Top image: A child navigates through rubble and barbed wire in Aleppo. (Associated Press)

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