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Can U.N. Monitors Stop the Slaughter in Aleppo?

The U.N. voted to send monitors to Aleppo. But some fear such moves could be too little, too late.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
TOPSHOT - Syrian pro-regime fighters, gesture as they drive past residents fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, in Aleppo's Fardos neighbourhood on December 13, 2016, after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters. 
Syrian rebels withdrew from six more neighbourhoods in their one-time bastion of east Aleppo in the face of advancing government troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP / STRINGER        (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Syrian pro-regime fighters, gesture as they drive past residents fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, in Aleppo's Fardos neighbourhood on December 13, 2016, after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters. Syrian rebels withdrew from six more neighbourhoods in their one-time bastion of east Aleppo in the face of advancing government troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Syrian pro-regime fighters, gesture as they drive past residents fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, in Aleppo's Fardos neighbourhood on December 13, 2016, after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters. Syrian rebels withdrew from six more neighbourhoods in their one-time bastion of east Aleppo in the face of advancing government troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Monday to rush United Nations monitors and Aleppo try to stanch a “devastating humanitarian situation” as the city falls to the Syrian government and forces backed by Iran and Russia.

The resolution called for the urgent deployment of monitors and demanded “complete, immediate, unconditional, safe, and unhindered access” to Aleppo for the U.N. and its partners to deliver aid and medical care. It also said the U.N. Secretary-General must “consult with interested parties” as the world body makes arrangements to deploy monitors -- an awkwardly-worded compromise to assuage Moscow’s earlier demands for coordination with the Syrian government.

Western powers opposed Russia’s provisions, fearing it would give President Bashar al-Assad’s government a pretext to hamper the U.N. efforts to evacuate those most in need. The compromise was hammered out by France and Russia, which both initially issued competing resolutions on Aleppo to the U.N. Security Council.

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Monday to rush United Nations monitors and Aleppo try to stanch a “devastating humanitarian situation” as the city falls to the Syrian government and forces backed by Iran and Russia.

The resolution called for the urgent deployment of monitors and demanded “complete, immediate, unconditional, safe, and unhindered access” to Aleppo for the U.N. and its partners to deliver aid and medical care. It also said the U.N. Secretary-General must “consult with interested parties” as the world body makes arrangements to deploy monitors — an awkwardly-worded compromise to assuage Moscow’s earlier demands for coordination with the Syrian government.

Western powers opposed Russia’s provisions, fearing it would give President Bashar al-Assad’s government a pretext to hamper the U.N. efforts to evacuate those most in need. The compromise was hammered out by France and Russia, which both initially issued competing resolutions on Aleppo to the U.N. Security Council.

Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy his group is skeptical that Syria, and its Russian and Iranian allies, will immediately work “to make sure the evacuations take place properly and in a humane manner.”

“All three have dismal records when is come to protecting civilians,” Charbonneau said.

The Turkish government announced that 20,000 people were evacuated from eastern Aleppo as of Monday. Somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 civilians remain in the city, according to various reports.

Monday’s unanimous vote followed a succession of Russian vetoes of Security Council measures aimed at pressuring the Assad regime to curtail its military activities. Council diplomats said Moscow’s support for the current resolution came after the U.S., Britain and France, threatened to support the convening of an emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly to take up the Syria crisis.

On Dec. 14, Turkey and Russia brokered a fragile ceasefire in Aleppo to evacuate rebels and civilians from the city as it fell to Assad’s forces. The ceasefire repeatedly collapsed and resumed over the weekend as reports emerged of delays, and of militants attacking relief workers.

The newest U.N. resolution is a welcome sign for relief organizations, but some fear it may be too little, too late.

“Evacuations have been taking place now for days, and in that time we have seen convoys being attacked. Why has it taken so long for this necessary step to be taken?” said Sherine Tadros, Head of Amnesty International’s U.N. office in New York. “U.N. monitors should not just observe but also be allowed to investigate war crimes being committed,” she added.

After the vote, Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Bashar al-Jaafari said there was no need for new monitors in Aleppo because the chief humanitarian agencies had been in the area throughout the conflict.  “Are we going to implement the resolution, yes,” he said.

But, Jaafari said, its key provisions have already “been implemented by the Syrian government for the past five years.” His remarks raised questions about whether Syria would permit new monitors into Aleppo, or insist that the U.N. rely on humanitarian aid workers already based in the area.

Jaafari also claimed numerous U.S., Israeli, Jordanian, Moroccan, Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari supporters and intelligence officers, remain in Aleppo and are seeking to escape. “We are going to catch them and show them to you,” he said, claiming that the U.S. and its allies sought Monday’s resolution to “guarantee their safety out of eastern Aleppo.”

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Jaafari’s remarks should come with a warning label noting that “nothing he has said over the life of this conflict has been true.”

On Tuesday, the Russian, Turkish, and Iranian defense ministers will meet in Moscow to discuss Aleppo and the situation in Syria. The meeting aims “to understand the views of all three sides, laying out where we all stand and discuss where we go from here,” a Turkish official told Hurriyet Daily News.

But the official added that Turkey would not budge from its longstanding position that Assad must step down to end the Syrian conflict: “Someone who is the culprit in the death of 600,000 people cannot be a partner for a solution,” said the official, who was not identified by name. “With the Russians, we agree to disagree on this matter.”

Also on Monday, Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was reportedly shot and seriously wounded by a gunman in Ankara during a visit to a photo exhibition. He was taken to a hospital but his condition is yet unknown. The gunman is currently still at large.

Photo credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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

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