Aleppo 'hell' prevents Syria peace talks, say diplomats

The UN’s hopes for an August restart for diplomatic talks to end the brutal Syrian civil war have been set aside at least until a ceasefire is agreed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo, where as many as 2 million people remained trapped by intense fighting.

The UN had been hoping this month to restart political talks on a transition in Syria away from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but following a briefing on Tuesday of the UN security council dominated by the crisis in Aleppo, western diplomats said the talks were buried until at the very least a stable ceasefire is agreed in Syria’s second city.

Alexis Lamek, deputy French representative to the UN, said: “I don’t see how we can have meaningful talks if there is not a minimum conducive environment.”

That would have to include regular 48-hour ceasefires to allow humanitarian aid into the city and to take injured children out under UN supervision, Lamek said. Russia has proposed humanitarian corridors only for people to leave the city, a proposal that is not trusted by many in Aleppo, and has been condemned by British diplomats as colluding in the destruction of the city.

Russia has been accused of overseeing the systematic bombing of medical facilities in eastern Aleppo as part of a bombardment that is designed to break the will of the citizens that have refused to flee their homes.

The fate of Aleppo, the scene of some the most brutal fighting of the civil war, is seen as critical by all the actors to the conflict.

The Syrian Army loyal to President Bashar al-Assad closed the final access roads to the eastern part of city in early July, but a fightback by rebel forces, some supported by the west and others by regional backers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, claimed at the weekend to have have secured a partial reopening of the main access route – the Castello road. The fighting has led to public water supplies being cut off in both sides of the city in the midst of searing heat.

Stephen O’Brien, the UN co-ordinator of humanitarian aid who briefed the security council alongside UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said aid workers could not go into eastern Aleppo due to the intensity of the fighting, adding “the aid workers are brave, but they are not suicidal”.

He said an estimated 250,000-275,000 people were trapped in eastern Aleppo following the closure of the Castello road last month, and across the city said there were 2 million terrified citizens that had gone without running water for four days. He said UN aid could be supplied within 24 to 48 hours of a ceasefire being agreed.

On Monday, the UN security council was told by two American doctors, recently returned from treating children in Aleppo’s bombarded hospitals, that the city had become a “hell”, with children dying under a bombardment that left them without the most basic medical supplies. Graphic pictures and testimony of the children maimed by the Syrian air force were shown to the diplomats, in a bid to persuade them to find a solution to the five-year war. In July there were at least 10 confirmed attacks on health facilities in Aleppo city.

In a sign of how far apart the US and Russia remain, Russia’s deputy ambassador Vladimir Safronkov condemned the “laments and wails about the deplorable humanitarian situation” as a tactic, adding it was getting in the way of the real political priorities: “The propaganda and the emotional rhetoric, the unfounded accusations, the information campaign, means that we cannot move toward a political settlement in Syria.”

He said the main cause of humanitarian problems in Syria was not the “counterterrorist” actions by the legitimate government of Syria but the short sighted democratisation policy of the US, supported by other western governments, which has led to destabilisation of a whole region.

He claimed the US had failed to make good on a February promise to draw a clear distinction between “terrorists” and moderate rebels. “We still do not know where the moderate opposition and where the terrorists are located. The reason is there is a major temptation to use terrorists to achieve the west’s geopolitical plans for Syria.”

In a bid to restart the talks US secretary of state John Kerry met Vladimir Putin in mid-July to propose a deal whereby the Syrian air force ended its lethal bombing campaign in return for American agreement that one of the leading rebel forces – the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front – be designated a terrorist group, and so no longer party to a new ceasefire. American sponsored rebel forces have long been entangled with al-Nusra, and many Washington-backed forces would regard an attack on al-Nusra as an attack on the Syrian revolution itself.

The US proposal has been made more complex by the announcement last week that al-Nursra had “broken” with al-Qaida, and was now forming a new group, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Western diplomats doubt the sincerity of this change in ideology.

But Washington seems reluctant to denounce this new group as a bogus rebranding, partly because it knows so many of the already weak rebel groups it does support are willing, or even eager, to work with the effective and disciplined al-Nusra forces. Many of these moderate forces feel abandoned by the west.

At the UN session on Monday, Clarissa Ward, a celebrated CNN war correspondent, also warned Russia was playing into the hands of jihadists. She told the Russian envoy: “From my experience on the ground – which is considerable – bombing hospitals, court houses, bakeries and fruit markets does not eliminate terrorism. If anything it is the oxygen which terrorists breathe and it spreads like wildfire.”