- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Just 45 minutes after a fragile cease-fire took effect in Syria last weekend, a local journalist called the State Department’s hotline to report a nearby bombing, but the operator couldn’t speak Arabic.

The cessation of hostilities agreement in Syria, brokered by Russia and the U.S., officially went into effect Saturday.

The U.S. Department of State advertised an emergency hotline for those wishing to phone in a “firsthand knowledge of a violation of the cessation of hostilities.”

Then, late Saturday night, a Syrian journalist tried to do just that after mortar shells were reportedly fired on Homs, the nonprofit journalism organization Syria Direct reported.

“I called at 12:35 a.m. Saturday morning, just 45 minutes into the cease-fire,” Syria Direct reporter Orion Wilcox said. “I didn’t expect an American to answer; he answered in English but switched to Arabic. I started telling him in Arabic about reports we were getting from Homs province of specific cease-fire violations.”

Mr. Wilcox said the State Department operator seemed to be “struggling” to understand him and was only able to repeat the location of the reported attack.

“I’m like, why is this American guy on the phone who can’t speak Arabic? I’d give a detailed account of something happening in Homs province and he would listen and his answer was: ‘Homs.’ That’s it.”

The State Department admitted on Wednesday that it staffed the hotline with volunteers who did not speak proficient Arabic, Syria’s national language.

“In order to help monitor the cessation of hostilities in Syria, we did set up an information hotline that was staffed 24/7, where violations could be reported I think via a number of different apps,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday, The Washington Examiner reported.

“There were some language issues among some of the volunteers,” he added. “And granted, these again are State Department employees who are doing this in addition to their usual jobs.”

Mr. Wilcox said he finally switched to English and asked the hotline operator how he could effectively document events without understanding all the Arabic. The operator answered that other people were working the hotline, declined to comment further and hung up, according to Syria Direct.

In an online statement Monday, U.S. Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratney said the Cessation of Hostilities Coordination Team in D.C. takes reports of violations “very seriously and follows up on each one,” adding that the “greater the specificity of these reports, the more useful they are for monitoring and follow up.”

Other activists that Syria Direct interviewed said they have given up on trying to use the State Department’s hotline to report violations of the cease-fire.

“We attempted to call the [Department of State’s hotline], but we don’t think they understood what we were saying,” said Abu Odei al-Homsi, an activist with the Ceasefire Monitoring Center in the Homs countyside.

“Now we are calling the United Nations and the High Negotiations Coordinating Committee,” Mr. al-Homsi said, adding that the UN hotline is operated by a native Arabic speaker.

State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters this week that U.S. officials had “not been apprised of any claims of any additional violations of any significance,” since the cease-fire went into effect.

“These statements show that America has no idea what’s happening on the ground in Syria,” Salim a-Rihal, a Syrian from Homs, told Syria Direct in response to Kirby’s statement.

Though the violence in Syria has reportedly fallen in the wake of the agreement, breaches are still being reported on both sides.

Russia had said it would only continue to target areas controlled by al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, but opposition activists in rebel-held areas say they are still being bombed by Russian forces.

The Russian Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, said earlier this week that both moderate and terrorist opposition factions had violated the agreement at least nine times since Saturday’s truce.

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