Russia has been directly and repeatedly accused of war crimes at the UN security council in an unusually blunt session, as hopes of any form of ceasefire were flattened by the scale and ferocity of the Syrian regime’s assault on eastern Aleppo.
The war crimes accusations centred on the widespread use of bunker-busting and incendiary bombs on the 275,000 civilians living in the rebel-held east of the city, weapons that Moscow’s accusers say were dropped by Russian aircraft.
“Bunker-busting bombs, more suited to destroying military installations, are now destroying homes, decimating bomb shelters, crippling, maiming, killing dozens, if not hundreds,” Matthew Rycroft, the UK ambassador to the UN, said during the emergency security council session on Syria on Sunday.
“Incendiary munitions, indiscriminate in their reach, are being dropped on to civilian areas so that, yet again, Aleppo is burning. And to cap it all, water supplies, so vital to millions, are now being targeted, depriving water to those most in need. In short, it is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.”
Rycroft later walked out of the chamber with his US and French counterparts before the Syrian government representative began speaking, in protest at the regime’s bombing campaign.
The bombardment of Aleppo entered a fifth consecutive day on Monday, after 95 people were killed in the east of the city on Sunday, according to doctors. A tally from local hospitals put the number of wounded at 398, including 61 children.
“What has happened over the last three days is indescribable,” said Mohammad Abu Rajab, a doctor in one of the largest medical centres in eastern Aleppo. “Words fail, pictures fail, everything fails.”
Abu Rajab’s hospital received 180 dead and wounded on Sunday, and six more dead on Monday morning.
“Imagine the dead lying in the corridors, corpses and wounded and blood flowing everywhere,” he said. “We are standing before inhumanity, real massacres, extraordinary weapons whose blasts we never heard before, never heard before ever, they make the ground shake beneath our feet.”
In Moscow, meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov slammed the United States and Britain for accusing Russia of “barbarism” and war crimes.
“We note the overall unacceptable tone and rhetoric of the representatives of the United Kingdom and the United States, which can damage and harm our relations,” Peskov told reporters.
At the security council meeting, Rycroft’s French counterpart, François Delattre, said the use of bunker-busters and incendiaries on urban residential areas was a war crime.
“They must not be unpunished,” he said. “Impunity is simply not an option in Syria.”
“Aleppo is to Syria what Sarajevo was to Bosnia, or what Guernica was to the Spanish war,” the French envoy said. “this week will go down in history as the one in which diplomacy failed and barbarism triumphed”.
Earlier on Sunday, the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said: “Putin’s regime is not just handing Assad the revolver; he is in some instances firing the revolver. The Russians themselves are actually engaged.”
The US ambassador, Samantha Power, highlighted the targeting of three out of four centres in eastern Aleppo used by the volunteer emergency services – the White Helmets – with the consequence that lifesaving equipment had been destroyed and “those buried in rubble in Aleppo are much more likely to die in the rubble”.
She said while Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had been talking about restoring peace in Syria at council meetings last week, incendiary bombs were being loaded on to Russian planes in preparation for the new offensive.
“What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism. It is barbarism,” Power said, urging other national representatives to speak out. “History will not look kindly on security council members who stay silent in the face of this carnage,” she said, adding that it was also not the time to use the passive voice and observe that Aleppo was being bombed. It was time, she said, to say who was doing the bombing.
In response, the Russian envoy, Vitaly Churkin, blamed the breakdown of a week-long, US-Russia-brokered ceasefire on rebels, including the “moderate opposition” backed by the west. Extremist groups in eastern Aleppo were holding its population hostage, Ch
He praised the Assad regime in Damascus for its “admirable restraint”, claiming it was in fact Syrian government forces that were surrounded and were only firing on eastern Aleppo when they had been fired upon. “The Syrian regime only uses air power to get terrorists out of the city with minimal civilian casualties,” Churkin said, as he dismissed reports of mass killing in eastern Aleppo as fake, using footage from government-held western Aleppo.
The UN special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said the ceasefire had significantly reduced the level of fighting, allowing Aleppo residents to “come out of their shelters and houses to celebrate Eid on the streets”.
He said: “People started to become cautiously optimistic,” but added the ceasefire was broken by bombing a day before the end of its first week “when five districts were hit reportedly with five severe airstrikes” following the Syrian government’s unilateral declaration of an end to the truce.
“Since that fateful day, we have seen the situation in eastern Aleppo deteriorate to new heights of horror,” De Mistura said. He said the airstrikes were reported to have killed 213 people in Aleppo province, 139 of them in eastern Aleppo.
De Mistura said: “We heard the word ‘unprecedented’ – in quantity and also in scale and type – in [descriptions of] the types of bombing. We have seen reports, videos and pictures of reported use of incendiary bombs that create fireballs of such intensity that they light up the pitch darkness in eastern Aleppo, as though it was actually daylight. We now hear of bunker-busting bombs being used and see pictures of large craters in the earth much larger than in previous aerial bombings.
“If it is confirmed, the systematic indiscriminate use of such weapons in areas where civilians and civilian infrastructure are present may amount to war crimes.”
The scorched-earth campaign appears aimed at forcing the rebels to surrender in Aleppo, their last major metropolis in what supporters of the regime deem “useful Syria”, relegating the opposition into a rural insurgency. The Syrian military command has announced that it is planning a major operation to retake all of Aleppo, urging citizens to flee the besieged district.
De Mistura said he had been asked why, in the face of such an onslaught and failure of diplomacy, he did not resign. He said he would not do so “because any sign of me resigning would be a signal that the international community is abandoning the Syrians, and we will not abandon the Syrians, and neither will you”.
Tom Fletcher, the UK’s former ambassador to Lebanon, said the change in tone used at the security council on Sunday marked a new phase in the west’s response to the conflict, jettisoning residual hopes of making a deal with Russia.
“Normally diplomatic language is cautious: even the Syria contact group’s statement yesterday only spoke of patience with Russia being ‘not unlimited’. But today’s statements in the security council from France, the US and UK are more raw, and more angry. They show that the recent policy – admittedly more in hope than expectation – of trusting Russia to restrain Assad is now buried in the rubble of Aleppo. This signals a new phase. Assad has calculated that US elections give him a free hand to massacre. We will now see whether or not he has underestimated US readiness to protect the most vulnerable.”