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New deal offers respite for Aleppo after two-week bombardment

06 May 2016


Casualties: a woman at a site in Aleppo hit by airstrikes

Casualties: a woman at a site in Aleppo hit by airstrikes

A "REGIME OF CALM" began on Thursday in Aleppo, after the deaths of almost 300 people in two weeks prompted calls on the United States and Russia to broker a truce. 

Since the escalation of hostilities in the city on 22 April, 279 civilians have been killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates. Victims include Mohammed Wasim Moaz, said to be the last paediatrician in the area. He was killed in airstrikes on al-Quds hospital last week that left 50 dead. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has condemned a “monstrous disregard for civilian lives” by all parties to the conflict.

Last Friday, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, representing the Church of England, was among 85 signatories asking President Obama and President Putin to heed the UN’s call to use their diplomatic muscle to save a cessation of hostilities agreement brokered in February (News, 19 February). “Syria is yet again on the brink of humanitarian disaster, and the need for action is urgent,” they warned.

The US State Department said on Wednesday that an agreement to extend an existing ceasefire to Aleppo had been reached with Russia. The Syrian army declared a 48-hour "period of calm" in the city beginning at 1 a.m. on Thursday morning. A reduction in violence has been reported, but sources told Al-Jazeera that the regime forces had dropped barrel bombs on the countryside near Aleppo and the Syrian government has accused rebels of violating the agreement. 

The original cessation of hosilities agreement, brokered by the US and Russia, which took effect on 27 February, was “still alive, but barely”, the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said last week. He has warned that its breakdown would be "catastrophic" and could result in 400,000 more people fleeing to Turkey. Partial truces near Damascus, and in Latakia have already been agreed. 

In an open letter to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and ministers in the EU, more than 150 Syrian civil society workers said that it was “utterly outrageous” that Aleppo had been excluded from the earlier deal. “If an end to Russian and regime aggression is not realized immediately, the conflict will burn on,” they warned.


Mr Kerry said on Wednesday that the attack on al-Quds “appears to have been a deliberate strike on a known medical facility, and follows the Assad regime’s appalling record of striking such facilities”. The Syrian army has denied targeting the hospital.

The UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, stressed on Wednesday that "intentional and direct attacks on hospitals are war crimes".

Calls for the US and Russia to take the lead in ending the hostilities were echoed by the founder of the Roman Catholic Sant’Egidio community in Rome, Andrea Riccardi, in the Avvenire newspaper, translated in Crux. He warned that it would prove difficult to rebuild peace in the city. “How will Muslims and Christians live together? In fact, a great deal of hatred has been set loose.” Aleppo’s “large and diverse Christian community has, for the most part, gone into exile”, he said.

A different perspective was provided by the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Jean-Clément Jeanbart. “I think we are at about half of the Christians still in Aleppo,” he said on Monday, during a visit to the US. “There are some who went to the border, to Damascus, to Latakia, to Lebanon, and a lot have come back, which has given us hope that future can again be good, and that we will have good people working for a new Church rising up.”

Aleppo, once the most populous city and commercial centre in Syria, has been divided since 2012 between eastern areas controlled by rebels, and western areas under the control of the regime. In the latest escalation, regime air-strikes were met with rocket attacks by the rebels. Civilians have borne the brunt of the violence, which has included six attacks on medical facilities in less than a week. On Tuesday, it was reported that at least three people had been killed by an alleged rebel rocket-attack on al-Dabit hospital, situated in a government-held area.

Life for people in Aleppo had "lost all sense", the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, told the UN Security Council on Wednesday. "Access to basic and essential services, such as water and electricity, is sporadic, at best. People are living under daily threat and terror. . . there can be no explanation or excuse, no reason or rationale, for waging war on civilians.”

On Wednesday he called for an immediate independent investigation into air strikes that left dozens of civilians dead at two settlements in Idleb where displaced Syrians were seeking sanctuary. Noting that "modern military technology means that there is little room for error," he warned that, if found to be deliberate, it could amount to a war crime. Reports suggest that at least 30 people were killed, and more 80 injured, including many women and children

The UN humanitarian adviser, Jan Egeland, has reported that the Syrian government has refused to permit the delivery of aid to about half of the 905,000 people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, including eastern Aleppo. 

The violence prompted a condemnation of world powers by Prince Zeid. “The persistent failure of the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court is an example of the most shameful form of realpolitik,” he said last week.

“In the minds of many, the world’s great powers have, in effect, become accomplices to the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and the displacement of millions. There is currently no disincentive for any of the many war criminals in Syria to stop contributing to the wild spiral of killing and destruction that has engulfed the country.”

The top United Nations humanitarian official has called for an immediate, impartial and independent investigation into the air strikes that today left dozens of civilians dead and injured in the northern Syrian Governorate of Idleb, which, if found to be deliberate, could amount to a war crime.

This week Russia blocked a British-drafted Security Council statement, which condemned the violence in Aleppo.

Change of heart on child refugees

THOUSANDS of unaccompanied child refugees from camps in Europe will be taken by the UK, after Conservative MPs threatened to rebel against the Prime Minister.

David Cameron originally opposed a call to take 3000 children, set out in an amendment to the Immigration Bill, tabled by a Labour Peer, Lord Dubs (News, 29 April). The amendment fell after a vote of 294 to 276 last week.

MPs, including Conservative backbenchers, backed by the Daily Mail, urged him to think again, and, on Wednesday, he announced during Prime Minister’s Questions that the revised Dubs amendment — it does not now specify a number of children — will not return to the House of Lords.

The UK already has a legal obligation to take child migrants with a direct family connection to the UK, and Mr Cameron told MPs that “we will speed that up”. He also confirmed that he was talking to Save the Children “to see what more we can do, particularly with children who came here before the EU-Turkey deal was signed, because I say again that I do not want us to take steps that will encourage people to make this dangerous journey. Otherwise, our actions, however well-meaning they will be, could result in more people dying rather than more people getting a good life.”

This means that only children who arrived in Europe before 20 March will be eligible for the programme.

The Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, privately told the MPs that at least 3000 children would be included.

Eurostat estimates that almost 90,000 unaccompanied children sought asylum in Europe in 2015 — almost quadruple the number in 2014. More than 90 per cent of children travelling without a parent or guardian were boys, and more than half were between 16 and 17 years old. Half were Afghans; and Syrians made up 16 per cent of the total.

Councils in the UK are currently supporting more than 4000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. On Wednesday, the chairman of the Local Government Association’s Asylum, Refugee and Migration Task Group, David Simmonds, said that the Government must clarify the long-term funding arrangements for councils looking after the additional children, and how a “national dispersal mechanism” will operate. The Association was already working with the Government to ensure that unaccompanied children were not “disproportionately located in a small number of areas”, he said.

Despite his concession, Mr Cameron reiterated his earlier arguments against taking more Syrian refugees. He rejected comparisons to the Kindertransport — whereby Jewish children were brought to the UK during the Second World War — as an “insult” to the European countries currently hosting refugees, “safe countries that are democracies”.

The chief executive of Save the Children, Tanya Steele, welcomed the “significant announcement”, which offered a “lifeline” to vulnerable children. But the Refuge Council’s head of advocacy, Dr Lisa Doyle, said that the public “shouldn’t be fooled into thinking the Government has suddenly discovered its conscience while it’s simultaneously vilifying asylum-seekers who are already in the UK, and doing its best to trap all other refugees in poor countries”.

The Refugee Council is critical of the Government’s refusal to participate in a new system for asylum, proposed by the European Commission on Wednesday. The existing system, whereby asylum-seekers should apply for asylum in the first country they enter, will be maintained, but a new “fairness mechanism” will be introduced. If country is deemed to be handling a disproportionate number of asylum applications, with reference to its size and wealth, all further new applications will be relocated across the EU. Those states who opt not to take part will have to make a “solidarity contribution” of €250,000 for each applicant.

The UK is not required to abide by these new rules. The Minister for Immigration, James Brokenshire, told the House of Commons on Wednesday that the Government would not be opting in: “We do not support relocation.” The Government would continue to return asylum-seekers to the country they first entered. 

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