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Russian airstrikes continue despite fragile Syrian cease-fire agreement

Seventeen nations led by the U.S. and Russia offered a Syrian cease-fire agreement in Munich Friday, to be enacted in one week. But Russian airstrikes in the region have continued unabated, President Bashar al-Assad is still vowing to retake all of Syria, and rebel groups, who were not part of negotiations, may be reluctant to comply. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now hopes for the first steps in the road to peace in Syria.

    The U.S. and Russia agreed on a cease-fire plan and a rush of humanitarian aid to areas of the country ravaged by years of war. But there are doubts the pledges will hold.

    Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, reports.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    There was no letup in the intensity of Russian airstrikes across Syria today hours after major powers made their announcement in Munich.

    Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov unveiled an agreement by the — quote — "International Syria Support Group" of 17 nations.

    JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: This progress has the potential, fully implemented, fully followed through on, to be able to change the daily lives of the Syrian people.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Specifically, the agreement calls for implementing a nationwide cessation of hostilities a week from today, immediate acceleration and expansion of humanitarian aid deliveries into Syria, and increased coordination between the U.S. and Russia air campaigns against the Islamic State and other terror groups.

    The U.S. had sought an immediate full-scale cease-fire in Syria, for the first time since fighting began in 2011. Kerry acknowledged this agreement falls well short.

  • JOHN KERRY:

    A cease-fire, in the minds of many of the participants in this particular moment, connotes something far more permanent and far more reflective of sort of an end of conflict, if you will. And it is distinctly not that.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Moreover, the agreement allows continued airstrikes against ISIS and similar terror groups. That provision could let Russia continuing attacking any rebel groups fighting against its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    It's a point not lost on rebels on the ground today.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    I do not like the idea of cease-fire, because it might be for our benefit only for a short period of time. But the things we're watching right now, including airstrikes in the northern and southern rural areas or in the liberated areas that we are in, this is not called cease-fire.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    As if to confirm it, Assad told Agence France-Presse in an interview yesterday, before the deal was announced, that he means to retake the whole of Syria. He said: "This is a goal we are seeking to achieve without any hesitation. It makes no sense for us to say that we will give up any part."

    Indeed, the Syrian military and its allies, backed by Iran and by the Russian airstrikes, are now on the verge of cutting off Aleppo, the country's largest city. They have severed all but one of the rebels' vital supply lines to the north from Turkey, and continue gaining ground. That would leave Assad stronger than he has been in years.

    All this leaves the various rebel factions in a precarious position. They were not part of the Munich agreement and must now decide whether to abide by what was approved there. Today, the main opposition umbrella group, which supports the cease-fire generally, called this one a weak agreement.

    An adviser for the group predicted the Russians will intensify their bombing in the coming days, telling the "NewsHour": "The Russians are setting the pace on the ground and they still will. The agreement weakens us and moderate allies, while allowing Assad to set the terms."

    Meanwhile, the unrelenting human toll mounts. In Geneva today, officials today convened the first meeting of a humanitarian task force created under yesterday's agreement.

    JAN EGELAND, Chairman, Task Force on Humanitarian Access in Syria: Convoys can go very soon, if and when we have the permission and the green light from the parties. And that is what we expect to get now, because we hope to see really the action taken by the members of the ISSG, who have influence on both the government and the armed opposition groups.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    It cannot come too soon for the sea of refugees. Turkey says up to 40,000 have arrived in camps north of Aleppo, just inside the Syrian border. And more are flooding in.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Margaret Warner.

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