‘We will not let Aleppo become another Rwanda’: UN envoy likens Syrian civil war to genocide
Russia warns US against carrying out air strikes on areas controlled by Syrian President’s Bashar al-Assad’s government
Rebel-held eastern Aleppo could be “totally destroyed” by year’s end if a campaign of ferocious bombardment of the Syrian city by Russia and Syria continues, a senior UN envoy warned on Thursday. Staffan de Mistura’s remarks coincided with Moscow issuing a pointed warning to the US against carrying out air strikes on areas controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
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Speaking at a news conference in Geneva, de Mistura – the UN’s special envoy for Syria – also appealed to fighters from an al-Qaeda-linked faction to depart from opposition-held areas, saying their presence provided an “easy alibi” for aerial attacks to continue. The northern Syrian city has been pounded for two weeks by punishing air strikes that have killed nearly 300 people, many of them children.
Desperate conditions prevail in rebel-controlled neighbourhoods that have been targeted by Russian and Syrian aircraft, according to witnesses, monitors and aid groups. Medical centres and civil-defence headquarters have been struck repeatedly, with the city’s few remaining doctors struggling daily to treat gruesome injuries. Food is in short supply. Whole families have been buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings.
Using some of his strongest language since the breakdown of the ceasefire, de Mistura likened the growing slaughter in Aleppo to genocidal killings in the mid-1990s in the Balkans and Africa.
“There is only one thing we are not ready to do – be passive, resign ourselves to another Srebrenica, another Rwanda,” he said.
Directly addressing fighters of the Front for the Conquest of Syria, which formerly called itself the Nusra Front, the UN envoy urged them to leave the city to reduce the peril faced by eastern Aleppo’s estimated 275,000 civilians.
“If you decide to leave with dignity … I am personally ready physically to accompany you,” the envoy declared.
He said about 900 or 1,000 of the front’s fighters were in the city. That figure represented an apparent downward revision from the UN’s previous estimate of the number of fighters in eastern Aleppo tied to the al-Qaeda-linked faction. Last month, de Mistura had said about half the estimated 8,000 fighters in rebel-held Aleppo were aligned with the front – an estimate that had then been cited by Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov in defending the bombing campaign.
Aleppo, once a cultural and architectural treasure, has seen some of the worst bombardment of Syria’s multisided war, now in its sixth year. De Mistura said rebel-held areas could soon be left utterly in ruins, particularly the historic Old City. Satellite and drone imagery has already shown the destruction of huge swaths of what once was Syria’s commercial centre and most populous city.
“The bottom line is in a maximum of two months, two-and-a-half months, the city of eastern Aleppo at this rate may be totally destroyed,” the UN envoy said.
De Mistura’s comments came as the Russian military strongly warned the United States against striking the Syrian army, noting that its air defence weapons in Syria stand ready to fend off any attack.
The statement underlined high tensions between Moscow and Washington after the collapse of a US-Russia-brokered Syria truce and the Syrian army’s offensive on Aleppo backed by Russian warplanes.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said any US strikes on areas controlled by Assad’s government could jeopardise the lives of Russian servicemen. He said Moscow was worried by media reports alleging that Washington was pondering the possibility of striking Syrian army positions.
“I would recommend our colleagues in Washington to carefully weigh possible consequences of the fulfilment of such plans,” Konashenkov said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said: “We’re looking at the full range of options here and those comments notwithstanding, we still have a responsibility as a government to consider all those options.
“I don’t find them [comments like the warning] helpful to moving forward, to reach some sort of diplomatic solution here. But the Russians should speak for themselves and why they’re saying that kind of thing.”
Since Russia has launched its air campaign in Syria in support of Assad’s forces a year ago, the Russia and the US militaries have maintained contacts to prevent any mid-air incidents between Russian warplanes and the aircraft from the US-led coalition in the skies over Syria.
Konashenkov warned, however, that the Russian military won’t have time to use the hotline if it sees missiles on their way to targets in Syria.
“It must be understood that Russian air defence missile crews will unlikely have time to clarify via the hotline the exact flight programme of the missiles or the ownership of their carriers,” he added.
In an apparent hint at the US stealth aircraft, he added that any “dilettante illusions about stealth planes could collide with disappointing realities”.