It’s nicknamed the "road of death": a dusty two-lane highway lined with the wreckage of burned-out cars and the shells of blackened, deserted buildings. It’s also the only way into the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, and the latest desperate attempt at a ceasefire collapsed in part because of a fierce fight over its future.
The highway is called Castello Road, named after a restaurant and resort complex that was shuttered earlier in the five-year-old Syrian civil war. It stretches from Turkey to rebel-held eastern Aleppo, where 250,000 civilians are facing shortages of food, water, and medicine. The UN’s top aid official, Stephen O'Brien, recently said the grim situation there amounted to a "humanitarian catastrophe unparalleled in the over five years of bloodshed and carnage in the Syrian conflict."
Under the terms of the ceasefire pact, the Syrian troops who have held the road since July and the rebels who’ve been fighting to take it back ever since were supposed to pull back from the highway, allowing aid convoys to make their way to Aleppo. Trucks holding enough supplies to feed 40,000 people for a month have been stuck in the Turkish city of Cilvegozu, unable to reach Aleppo’s starving residents.
That didn't happen. Instead, the deal collapsed in acrimony after a dramatic few days that began with a botched US airstrike that killed 62 Syrian troops and ended with Damascus announcing that the ceasefire was over. For Washington and its allies, meanwhile, the continued closure of Castello Road meant the deal had failed even before its formal collapse because the pact hadn't prevented Aleppo from continuing to starve while aid convoys languished just over the border in Turkey.
The culprit? The continued sparring over Castello Road. Under the terms of the pact, Syrian forces and rebel troops were both supposed to pull back from the highway so the aid trucks could start to roll in. Neither side fully kept up its end of the bargain, leaving the road too dangerous for the trucks to navigate. In the end, none of the aid convoys were able to make it down the highway and into the rebel-held areas of Aleppo.
In a statement, O'Brien, the UN human rights chief, said he was "pained and disappointed" the aid convoys weren't able to reach the city. Neither he nor senior American diplomats offered any guesses about when that could change.
Before the collapse of the pact, Russian troops — who have been in Syria fighting on behalf of the Assad government — had began deploying into Syrian military positions along the highway. Those can be dangerous places to be: In a widely shared video, a Russian officer standing on Castello Road began praising the ceasefire, only to have to run for cover when gunfire suddenly rang out.
— Military Advisor (@miladvisor) September 13, 2016
Almost immediately after the ceasefire broke down, the Syrian and Russian militaries began an all-out bombardment of rebel-held areas of Aleppo that has dramatically worsened the humanitarian crisis. The US has threatened to completely walk away from talks with Russia aimed at reinstating the ceasefire if Russia does not stop its bombardment and allow in humanitarian aid.
"We're on the verge of suspending the discussion because it's irrational in the context of the kind of bombing taking place," US Secretary of State John Kerry said at an event organized by The Atlantic magazine.
Russia, however, does not seem to be moved by the threat and has vowed to continue bombing, accusing the US of trying to use a proposed ceasefire to allow the "terrorists" (what Russia and the Assad regime call the rebels) to regroup.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that Castello Road could not be used for humanitarian aid delivery to Aleppo because of the "terrorist threat."
And so the bombardment and siege of Aleppo continues, with no hope in sight for the tens of thousands of Syrians trapped inside.