The US accused Russia on Sunday of supporting “barbarism” over the bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo as the west stepped up diplomatic pressure on Moscow.
Accusing Russia of supporting a Syrian regime offensive that has derailed a ceasefire agreement negotiated between Washington and Moscow, Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, said Russian and Syrian forces were “laying waste to what is left of an iconic Middle Eastern city”.
In a blistering speech to an emergency UN Security Council meeting, Ms Power said: “Instead of pursuing peace, Russia and Assad make war.”
While Moscow was likely to argue that it was pursuing terrorists in Syria, she said that “Russia is espousing fiction”. “What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counterterrorism; it is barbarism,” she added.
In theory, the US and Russia are still working to see if there is a way to revive the ceasefire plan announced two weeks ago — John Kerry, US secretary of state, has called for military aircraft to be barred from flying over contested areas. However, the fierce exchanges at the UN underlined the collapsing space for diplomacy.
Kerry and Lavrov pose for a photo at the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, on Sept 23, 2016. PHOTO by REUTERS
Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, said that the US had little influence over the rebel groups that it was backing in Syria. “Bringing a peace is almost an impossible task now,” he said.
The speech by Ms Power came as Europe and the US ramped up diplomatic pressure on Russia, accusing Moscow of supporting the Syrian regime’s offensive on Aleppo.
Sunday’s urgent meeting was held at the request of the UK, the US and France as fighting continued to rage around Aleppo and the rebel-held east of the city suffered a new bombardment, the latest in a spiral of violence that has left the planned ceasefire in tatters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 26 people had died in the new round of regime airstrikes on the city on Sunday.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s foreign minister, told the meeting that Russia and Iran, which also backs the Syrian regime, would be accomplices to war crimes if they did not press President Bashar al-Assad to stop the violence.
He said the Syrian government “has clearly made the choice of a military escalation”.
“I am calling on Russia and Iran to pull themselves together and show responsibility, by putting a stop to this strategy,” Mr Ayrault said. “If not, Russia and Iran will be accomplices in war crimes committed in Aleppo.”
Foreign ministers from the US, the UK, France, Italy and Germany — along with the EU’s foreign policy chief — have accused Russia of violating a ceasefire intended to halt the fighting.
An international Syrian ceasefire is still the best option
Moscow’s support for attacks carried out by Mr Assad’s forces “blatantly contradicts Russia’s claim that it supports a diplomatic resolution”, the US and European ministers said in a joint statement on Sunday. “The burden is on Russia to prove it is willing and able to take extraordinary steps to salvage diplomatic efforts.”
Mr Churkin told the security council that peace in Syria was “almost an impossible task now”.
More than 200 civilians have died in three days of near-constant shelling that has pounded rebel-held districts, according to medical professionals in the area. Aleppo — the biggest strategic and political prize of the conflict — is divided between regime forces on the west and rebels in the east, where a quarter of a million people are trapped under a government siege.
“We have exhausted all the options of civilian protection — we’ve even dug hospitals underground and in caves, as if we are living in the Middle Ages,” said Raed al-Saleh, head of the rescue group in Aleppo known as the “White Helmets”.
Aleppo residents say the latest bombing has even damaged these underground clinics, with what they call “bunker-busting” weapons.
A Syrian boy awaits treatment at a makeshift hospital following air strikes on rebel-held eastern areas of Aleppo © AFP
Several hospitals have also been destroyed in strikes that have caused so much destruction that many roads and districts have been blocked by debris as aid workers struggle to reach people trapped under rubble. Medical workers said rescuers have had to walk on foot for several kilometres to reach bomb sites — and back out again with wounded survivors.
The ceasefire was brokered earlier this month by Moscow and Washington, which backs Syria’s opposition. But it collapsed last Monday, just seven days after it began, derailing a multi-step deal meant to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid, pave the way for political talks and initiate US-Russian military co-operation against jihadi forces in the country.
Russia and Mr Assad now appear determined to break a years-long stalemate and try to take Aleppo. If the regime succeeds, the offensive could be a turning point of the war — the city is the opposition’s last urban stronghold, and without it, they fear their uprising will fade into a rural insurgency ignored by the outside world.
Rebel groups said efforts by western powers to pressure Russia to help implement the ceasefire is worthless, arguing that Moscow could no longer be seen as a legitimate international broker of the deal.
“The negotiations process based on the current system is no longer meaningful in the wake of the bombing and killing and destruction that needs to stop completely,” rebel factions from northern Syria said in a joint statement. “We do not accept the Russian side as a party to oversee negotiations given that it is the regime’s partner in its crimes against our people.”
The warring sides were locked in fierce battles on Aleppo’s main supply routes on the northern and southern outskirts of the city at the weekend as regime forces tried to strengthen their blockade.
Activists and medical workers shared pictures on social media of clinics crammed so full of victims that they had been laid out for treatment along bloodied hallways. One of the most uploaded was a haunting photograph of their rescuers uncovering a woman and her two children buried alive in the rubble.
However, Damascus appears emboldened despite the international condemnation of the devastation in Aleppo.
“Our belief in victory is even greater now that the Syrian Arab Army is making great strides in its war against terrorism, with the support of the true friends of the Syrian people, notably the Russian Federation, Iran and the Lebanese national resistance,” Walid al-Moualem, the foreign minister, told the UN General Assembly on Saturday.
But even with Moscow’s help, Mr Assad’s forces will struggle to take the city. Rebels have for years dug fortifications and underground tunnels, meaning any ground invasion is likely to be long and costly.