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Shaky Cease-Fire Holds In Syria, For Now


In Syria, a shaky cease-fire appears to be holding a second day, though there are reports of violations. The U.S. and Russia brokered the temporary truce, hoping to bring about a turning point in the conflict that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and spurred of the largest refugee crises since World War II. For the latest, we're joined by NPR's Alice Fordham, who's on the Syria-Turkish border. Alice, can we really call this a truce, or is a partial truce more accurate?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: You know, yesterday, it really felt like it might just be a real cease-fire for a while there. People in opposition-held areas told us it was quieter than it had been in months or even in years. There's a big volunteer group called Syria Civil Defense which does a lot of the rescue work, especially after air strikes. They reported a dramatic drop in attacks. But a lot of people have been very skeptical, and they were surprised that the cease-fire happened at all. And today, it doesn't look so good. There are more reports of air strikes on opposition-held areas. Rebel forces are also telling us there have been some clashes with regime forces north of the city of Aleppo. And regime media also say there have been attacks on their forces, which would also constitute a violation of the cease-fire. So it's all looking very tentative. But the U.N.'s envoy to Syria, when he discussed the cease-fire before it happened, insisted they were expecting violations, that there were mechanisms to deal with them, and that they hoped to continue with the efforts even if there are problems along the way.

WESTERVELT: Alice, has violence gone down enough that more humanitarian aid is getting through to those in need?

FORDHAM: Well, the effort to get more humanitarian aid into the country has been going on for a couple of weeks now. As many as 80,000 people who are in what are referred to as besieged or hard-to-reach areas have received aid that needed it. There are hundreds of thousands more who are also in need who are not getting it. There was an evacuation from a town called Madaya, which has been surrounded by regime forces for a long time, over the weekend. Twenty-two people were able to leave the town, although it came too late for one child who died of starvation over the course of the weekend. So there's been incremental improvements in that over the last couple of weeks.

WESTERVELT: Syrians have been through kind of Dante-esque hell. How are people on the ground reacting to this pause in fighting?

FORDHAM: Well, we got through to a couple of people today in opposition-held areas which, as you say, had just been under bombardment air strikes pretty much constantly for a very long time. It was quite poignant to talk to them. It sounded like it was almost disorientating for things to be quiet, and that people are taking the opportunity to go out a little more than they usually would. But they say they're afraid, and they don't anticipate that it will last very long.

WESTERVELT: Defense Secretary Ash Carter told NPR this morning, Alice, that battling the Islamic State remains the top priority, and they're not part of the cease-fire. Does that variable threaten to complicate or upend this whole fragile peace process?

FORDHAM: Well, ISIS and the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria are excluded from this truce. The hostilities against them are ongoing. In fact, there has been quite heavy fighting in eastern Syria, where Kurdish forces have made some significant gains against ISIS in recent days and weeks. But there was a big attack on the city called Tel Abyad by ISIS forces yesterday, which was repelled with the help of air strikes by those Kurdish forces. So that's something that is ongoing and probably unchanged, really, by the truce.

WESTERVELT: Alice, briefly - if this cease-fire does take hold, would more substantive peace talks come about?

FORDHAM: Well, if it does hold, then I think it would certainly be a significant gesture of faith by all sides that would create a good basis, possibly, for further talks that are due to happen a week - tomorrow. There are concerns by rebel fighters that in recent weeks, the forces of President Bashar al-Assad have made significant gains and that actually, this truce and subsequent peace talks could allow him to consolidate those gains. And so that's part of a very profound skepticism going forward. But yeah, sure, a truce is a good start to further talks.

WESTERVELT: NPR's Alice Fordham on the Turkish-Syria border. Alice, thank you.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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