INTERNATIONAL expressions of outrage at the continuing bombardment and siege of eastern Aleppo by Syrian and Russian forces have thus far failed to end the carnage there. Differences of opinion between Russia and the United States mean that the most hopeful diplomatic process aimed at achieving peace has collapsed.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking to ITV News during a visit to the Vatican, said that what was happening in Aleppo was “evil; it is demonic; it is the absolute contempt for the human spirit, for the dignity of the human being. It is the brushing aside of the poor and the weak and the fragile, in a way that is as bad as anything we’ve seen in the last century.”
The former Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, who called for Tuesday’s parliamentary debate on Syria, said that the use of incendiary weapons in densely populated areas amounted to a war crime. “We are witnessing events which match the behaviour of the Nazi regime in Guernica in Spain. Russia is shredding the international rules-based system of law.”
But condemnation of Syrian and Russian action in Aleppo is not helping the civilian population trapped amid the devastation. “These people have been abandoned — the whole world is witnessing east Aleppo being destroyed, but nobody is doing anything to stop it,” the head of Médecins Sans Frontière’s Syria mission, Carlos Francisco, said. “This is the feeling shared by the 35 doctors left in east Aleppo.”
That part of the city had been “exhausted by five years of war”, he said, and had “received almost no aid since July when the siege began — an area that is being devastated, flattened.”
The Maronite Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Joseph Tobji, told Vatican Radio that the residents of the city were living with death on a daily basis because of the frequent bombardment. At least ten funerals a day were being held for those killed in the fighting.
On the diplomatic front, there is an air of frustration and desperation in statements from world leaders. The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said that he was “ready physically to accompany” jihadist fighters out of Aleppo if that meant that the Syrians and Russians would stop bombing the city.
He said that about 900 fighters from the jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which is backed by al-Qaeda, were effectively holding hostage about 250,000 civilians. The UN envoy predicted that the eastern half of the city would face “total destruction” by the end of the year if the fighting did not stop.
Syrian and Russian officials have said that they are prepared to allow the jihadists to leave. But rebel groups say that they do not trust offers of safe passage from the Bashar al-Assad government.
With an end to the previous co-operation between Moscow and Washington, the US has lost most of its leverage on the crisis. While continuing to target the Islamic State group in Syria, it appears to have run out of options on how to deal with Aleppo.
Although there have been some calls in Washington for air or missile strikes on Syrian military positions, or the imposition of a no-fly zone, Russia has warned that it will respond militarily to any move of this kind. Russia has recently strengthened its air-defence system in Syria.
For now, at least, both sides are holding back from action that could spark a war between the two superpowers. But the tinder in Syria is dry, and the potential for accidents or miscalculations to cause a fatal spark is considerable.
Noticeably lacking since the early days of the Syrian crisis is any Arab initiative to end the fighting. Arab diplomacy became more muddled than ever at the weekend when Egypt voted for a UN Security Council resolution on Aleppo put forward by Russia. Saudi Arabia, a key backer of both anti-Assad forces in Syria and the Egyptian government, criticised Egypt’s support for Russia.