U.N. Chief Faults Russia and Syria for Humanitarian Disaster in Aleppo

Ban Ki-moon says escalating violence in Syria could make peace impossible -- and is holding Moscow and Damascus responsible for much of the carnage.

Smoke rises from buildings in the area of Tal Sharba following government air strikes on the outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on December 27, 2015, as government forces seized the area from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN / AFP / GEORGE OURFALIAN        (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from buildings in the area of Tal Sharba following government air strikes on the outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on December 27, 2015, as government forces seized the area from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN / AFP / GEORGE OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian and Syrian airstrikes have “severely disrupted” humanitarian operations around Aleppo during the past two months and hindered delivery of life-saving assistance to hundreds of thousands of Syrians, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote in an unpublished letter to the U.N. Security Council.

The accusation marked the strongest direct criticism of Moscow’s military operations in Syria by the U.N. chief since Russian President Vladimir Putin entered the war last September in an attempt to reverse rebel military advances threatening the survival of his chief Middle East ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Ban also appeared to take a veiled swipe at other governments that are fomenting violence in Syria. They include Turkey, which has shelled Kurdish insurgents in northern Syria, and Saudi Arabia, which has threatened to send ground forces to Syria and is providing arms and weapons to some of the groups battling Assad. Still, he stressed that all parties to the conflict in Syria bear responsibility for the deepening crisis, and said the surge in fighting across the country threatens to undermine efforts by the U.N. peace envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to restart credible political talks.

“The latest shelling and bombardments have destroyed many more Syrian lives, as well as schools and hospitals, and have created large numbers of internally displaced persons, many of whom will become refugees,” Ban wrote in the Feb. 17 letter to the U.N. Security Council, which has yet to be made public. A copy of the letter was provided to Foreign Policy

“The escalated military activity by several parties, and the threats to resort to further use of force, risk derailing efforts to find a sustainable political solution and the ability of my special envoy to credibly reconvene the talks,” Ban wrote.

The U.N. hosted intra-Syrian political talks in Geneva at the end of January. But the talks foundered as Syria and Russia intensified their air campaign against rebel-controlled strongholds in Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial capital. Earlier this month, De Mistura postponed the talks until February 25 in the hopes the key powers, including the United States and Russia, could make progress on a ceasefire. But the prospects of such an agreement have faded with the expansion of the civil war.

In the letter, Ban said the recent uptick in violence highlights the need for the world’s key powers — principally Washington and Moscow — to make good on their pledges to pressure Syria’s warring parties to silence their guns. Foreign ministers from the 17-nation International Syria Support Group, or ISSG, which oversees efforts to end the five-year-long civil war, promised last week in Munich to “exercise influence for an immediate and significant reduction to violence leading to a cessation of hostilities,” according to a final statement issued by the group. The ISSG includes all of the combatants’ key supporters, including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

Ban noted the conflict has reached such a complex and dangerous phase that the U.N. and other foreign powers were unlikely to intervene to help safe-guard the peace even if a nation-wide ceasefire agreement is struck.

“Under the current conditions, it would be extremely difficult to envisage any deployment of United Nations monitors to conduct physical monitoring and observation tasks on the ground,”’ he wrote. “Achieving any form of verification of actions committed by the parties would be almost impossible.”

The Munich agreement, Ban said, provides a “precious opportunity” to end the fighting in the civil war and step up humanitarian assistance to the nearly 500,000 Syrians whom the U.N. estimates live under siege. Unless Syrians see immediate improvements in their lives, he wrote, they “will rightly continue to be skeptical about the international community and the credibility of negotiations to end this devastating  conflict.”

If the talks do resume, Ban said de Mistura would propose a series of new confidence-building measures for discussions, including a request that the warring parties make a public commitment not to arrest negotiators or their relatives, and to release information about detainees and other missing persons. He will also issue a new call for the Syrian government to lift all restrictions limiting the U.N.’s ability to bring in needed surgical and medical supplies. And he will press all key combatants to end the indiscriminate use of weapons like the barrel bombs and cluster munitions being used by Syrian and Russian bombers.

Still, the U.N. chief’s 14-page letter cast some doubt about whether de Mistura would reconvene talks between the Syrian government and a coalition of opposition groups, which includes some of the main armed anti-Assad groups. On Jan. 18, de Mistura told the 15-nation Security Council that humanitarian aid required clear and continued access to “all besieged areas” to give the peace talks a foundation for success.

“Without this in place, and in light of the offensive in Aleppo and continued bombardment, it was extremely difficult for my special envoy to continue with the preparatory phase of the talks in Geneva,” Ban wrote.

There is little — if any — reason for optimism that Syria’s violence will begin to diminish anytime soon.

Last year, the U.N. was only able to deliver assistance to one percent of the nearly 500,000 civilians living under siege, subjecting many to malnutrition and in some cases outright starvation.

Ban said all parties continue to restrict access to humanitarian assistance, highlighting the Islamic State’s siege of at least 200,000 civilians in the city of Deir Ezzor. Last month, the Islamic State also cut off a water station on the Euphrates River that sustained nearly 3.5 million people in the Aleppo Governorate.

But he singled out the Assad regime, noting that the Syrian government is responsible for besieging more civilians — some 274,200 — than any of the other combatants (some human rights advocates say the numbers are even higher). Ban faulted the Syrian government for imposing bureaucratic restrictions that “severely constrain and delay” the U.N.’s delivery of assistance. For instance, Ban said, the Syrian government approved only 10 percent of 113 request for free passage by U.N. convoys.  And Damascus continues to remove medical supplies from the U.N. convoys its does approve for passage. On Feb. 4, for example, Syrian security forces removed medical kids from a U.N. convoy providing relief to about 40,000 people in the Al Waer section of Homs.

As a result, Ban said, only 620,000 received aid in 2015 from U.N.-coordinated aid convoys, compared to 2.9 million in 2013. “The cumulative impact on the ground of these restrictions is tangible,” he said.

On the eve of landmark peace talks in Geneva late last month, Russia and Syria launched a major new military offensive to encircle Aleppo and cut off the city’s supply lines from Turkey, a key rebel supporter.

Ban saved his some of his sharpest criticism for Damascus and Moscow, citing a series of six airstrikes on the rebel stronghold of Idlib on Dec. 20. The attacks struck a local courthouse, a residential neighborhood and a market, reportedly killing 95 civilians and injuring 170 more. He said the strikes included “indiscriminate and disproportionate” bombings, and have continued over the last two months “with total impunity, depriving civilians of basic and essential services and further driving humanitarian need across the country.”

In the end, Ban said the international community must curb the violence, fight terrorism, and resume negotiations towards a political settlement between the government and the rebels.

Otherwise, he added, “the Syrian parties and their supporters can continue to pursue the bankrupt logic of a military victory which has already led to the deaths of over 250,000 Syrians, the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, and the creation of safe havens for terrorist organizations such as ISIL, and al Nusra Front.”

Photo credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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