THE United Nations has appealed to all sides in the conflict in Syria to observe an immediate 48-hour ceasefire, to enable aid to reach tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the besieged northern city of Aleppo.
Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air-power, are trying to wrest control of the eastern sector of the city from rebel hands. Dozens of people have been killed in the fighting, and at least four hospitals have been targeted and put out of action. No supplies have reached eastern Aleppo since the first week of this month.
Among the helpless civilians trapped in the city are thousands of Syrian Christians. The Roman Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need quotes a Franciscan cleric in Aleppo, Fr Ibrahim Alsabbagh, as saying that the siege “means that we no longer have any chance of living. Some believe it would almost be better to die.” He described conditions as becoming “beyond endurance”. According to Fr Alsabbagh, only about 50,000 of the original Christian community of 150,000 remain in Aleppo.
The plight of civilians in the country’s second largest city was raised this week at the UN Security Council. The organisation’s humanitarian co-ordinator, Stephen O’Brien, said that there was an urgent need for a 48-hour truce because food and other essential supplies were running out. He described the siege being imposed by Syrian and Russian forces as “medieval and shameful”, saying that the international community needed to act without delay.
“The available protected space is shrinking,” he continued, “humanitarian conditions are worsening, and the level of despair is rising.”
The suffering in eastern Aleppo has increased markedly since Syrian forces captured Castello Road, which provided a supply route to rebels in the city. The UK ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, said that, as a result, “another humanitarian catastrophe awaits. Enough is enough now.”
The French ambassador to the UN, François Delattre, recalling the siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian war, said that the Security Council “simply cannot accept such war crimes — yes, war crimes — to happen again”.
Russia is, however, continuing to block moves to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire. The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said that Castello Road had been closed because it was being used to provide “terrorists with weapons and armaments”.
A statement released jointly by 24 aid agencies working in Syria said that more than 300,000 civilians were trapped in Aleppo. The agencies also said that similar suffering is occurring elsewhere in Syria. In the Manbij area, 50 miles north-east of Aleppo, an estimated 60,000 civilians are also trapped without access to aid. The agencies say that these developments mark “a shameful deterioration since the International Syria Support Group promised to open full access to aid across the country six months ago”.
The signatories to the statement include Christian Aid, Oxfam, and Save the Children. The Syrian Country Director for Save the Children, Sonia Khush, said: “Syrians in Manbij, Aleppo, Idleb, Daraya, and all across the country are now facing hunger and medical deterioration.
“Supplies are quickly running out, and women, children, and men will begin to starve unless the armed parties on the ground are made to open the way for humanitarian aid. The parties responsible for this are in the mean time feeling bolder in committing their violations.”
Meanwhile, Christians are not only among those besieged by Syrian and Russian forces in rebel-controlled areas, but are also still on the receiving end of attacks by the Islamic State (IS) group. The Barnabas Fund says that suspected IS gunmen opened fire on a church in Qamishli, in the far north-east of the country, before detonating explosives inside the building.
The town, under Syrian-army and Kurdish-militia control, is providing shelters for hundreds of Christians who fled from Hassake, 50 miles to the south, when it was taken over by IS last month.