INTERNATIONAL powers traded fierce statements over the weekend in an attempt to pin the blame on each other for the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire and the continuing bloodshed.
But, as the superpowers argued, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, urged them to put aside their differences and resurrect the ceasefire, for the good of the suffering people of Syria.
Mr de Mistura told an emergency session of the UN Security Council he was “appalled” by the ferocity of the military assault on Aleppo, Syria’s besieged second city, where fireballs from incendiary bombing were “lighting up the pitch darkness”.
The bombing of the city of two million people was unprecedented in its intensity, Mr de Mistura said. The council must find a way to end hostilities in Syria: there should be a ceasefire, weekly two-day pauses in fighting to allow aid in, and space for medical evacuations.
Russia, which is supporting the Syrian regime with air strikes and military assistance, has said that the United States and its allies are at fault, while the US has suggested that Russia’s words of peace are “blatantly contradicted” by its actions.
Tension between Russia and the US rose after what Washington insists was a mistaken attack by its jets, and those of its allies, on a Syrian army-base near Deir al-Zor, in the east of the country. More than 60 Syrian military personnel were killed. Russia, Syria, and Iran have accused the US of deliberately targeting the base.
While the truce was collapsing, an apparent air strike on an aid convoy waiting to go into Aleppo, in which more than 30 civilians were killed, prompted the UN to suspend all aid operations. Russia has insisted that neither its jets, nor Syrian ones, were responsible for the explosions and fires that destroyed about 20 aid trucks. It said that there were no craters or other evidence that bombs had been dropped.
But the US has said that two Russian planes were in the skies above at the time. A White House spokesman said: “There only could have been two entities responsibl:, either the Syrian regime, or the Russian government. In any event, we hold the Russian government responsible for air strikes in this space.”
A subsequent joint statement on Saturday by the foreign ministers of the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and the EU attacked Russia for not facilitating a diplomatic solution.
“The outrageous bombing of a humanitarian convoy; the Syrian regime’s public denunciation of the cessation of hostilities; continuing reports that the regime is using chemical weapons; and the unacceptable ongoing regime offensive on eastern Aleppo, supported by Russia, blatantly contradicts Russia’s claim that it supports a diplomatic resolution,” the statement said.
The ministers said that they wanted to destroy Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups in Syria, but also deplored the Syrian government’s attempts to hold up deliveries of humanitarian aid. “Patience with Russia’s continued inability or unwillingness to adhere to its commitments is not unlimited,” they warned.
Speaking at the Security Council, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said that Russia and its Syrian allies were “laying waste to what is left of an iconic Middle Eastern city. . . Instead of peace, Russia and Assad make war. Instead of getting life-saving aid to Syrians, Russia and Assad are bombing hospitals and first responders.”
Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, replied that Syrian troops were attempting to force terrorists out of Aleppo while harming as few civilians as possible.
The Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, spoke at the UN General Assembly on Friday, and criticised the West, accusing it of desiring its own supremacy over the needs of other nations. While Russia had prevented the “legitimate” Assad regime from collapse under attack from “terrorists”, the US and its allies must re-commit to defeating IS.
Mr de Mistura said that reports from the ground revealed that at least 213 civilians had been killed by air strikes on Aleppo and the surrounding region, as bombs hit residential buildings across the besieged eastern part of the city. If such systematic targeting of civilian areas was confirmed, it could amount to proof of war crimes, he also said.
Save the Children said that aid workers in Aleppo were finding that at least half of the casualties in the current offensive were children.
While Russia and the US exchange accusations, the reality is that the attack represented a setback both for humanitarian efforts in Syria and the wider search for a solution. The charity World Vision’s deputy Syria Response director, Martijn Hekman, spoke for many around the world when he said: “This deadly attack is a horrific turning point in the conflict, and utterly devastating for thousands of children and their families who were waiting for these supplies to arrive.”
Several convoys inside Syria and in Turkey had been loaded and were ready to move when the truce began. Russia promised that it would deploy its troops to secure a safe route into Syria. But still nothing was delivered.
Forty aid trucks remained stranded at the Turkish-Syrian border. The UN under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, said that before the official end of the truce period, he was “pained and disappointed that a United Nations convoy has yet to cross into Syria from Turkey”.
A Syrian working for the international NGO Human Rights Watch, Hadeel al-Shalchi, told al-Jazeera TV that delays in the granting of permission during the early days of the truce, when it was mostly holding, meant that chances to reach Aleppo had been squandered. “They had a really good opportunity in the past week, with low casualty numbers and low bombing rates, to be able to send in aid. But we haven’t seen that. We know that the situation is deteriorating quickly. We know that people will begin to starve as the ration products they have are not enough.”
Mr Hekman said that he hoped the attack on the aid convoy would “serve as a wake-up call to leaders to salvage what’s left of last week’s ceasefire deal and redouble their efforts”. The problem is that only two world powers, Russia and the US, have the diplomatic and military muscle even to attempt to tackle the Syrian crisis, and then only if they can work together.