Russia and Syria clashed with the US and its Western allies Wednesday over responsibility for the failure of a cease-fire to take hold in Syria as the UN said humanitarian convoys are ready to head to 10 locations including besieged eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus.
The contentious Security Council meeting four days after members adopted a resolution demanding a cease-fire “without delay” for at least 30 days throughout Syria to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate the critically ill and wounded reflected frustration and anger on both sides at the continued fighting and bombing.
UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock asked council members: “When will your resolution be implemented?” And UN political chief Jeffrey Feltman urged all 193 UN member states “to use their influence with the parties to ensure implementation of the cessation of hostilities.”
Lowcock said convoys are ready to go to 10 besieged and hard-to-reach locations including 45 trucks with aid for 90,000 people in Douma in eastern Ghouta. He said that since February 18 over 580 people are reported to have been killed and well over 1,000 injured in air and ground strikes in the Damascus, home to about 400,000 people.
Lowcock also warned that delivery of aid across conflict lines to millions of people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas throughout Syria “has totally collapsed.”
“Unless this changes,” he declared, “we will soon see even more people dying from starvation and disease than from the bombing and the shelling.”
Russia ordered a five-hour daily humanitarian pause starting Tuesday to allow civilians to exit eastern Ghouta. But no civilians have left, and no humanitarian aid has entered.
Russia asked council members to support a presidential statement asking all countries to ensure that armed groups support the Russian humanitarian corridors. The US, supported by other Western nations, objected because the statement didn’t reflect the resolution’s demands, according to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because consultations were private.
Lowcock reiterated the International Committee of the Red Cross’ assessment that it is impossible to deliver humanitarian aid in five hours, noting that it often takes convoys with all the required clearances a day just to get through checkpoints.
Kelley Currie, the US ambassador for economic and social affairs, called a five-hour pause “cynical, callous, and in flagrant defiance of the demands” for a cessation of hostilities “for at least 30 days — every day, all day.”
“Russia does not get to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the resolution they negotiated and they sat here and voted for,” she said.
“Russia, Iran and the Assad regime are not even trying to hide their intentions,” Currie told the council. “They are asking civilians to leave eastern Ghouta on the false premise that they can then attack anyone left in the area as much as they would like.”
Sweden’s deputy ambassador Carl Skau, speaking on behalf of resolution sponsors Sweden and Kuwait, also declared: “A five-hour cease-fire does not meet the requirements of the resolution.”
“This resolution is not primarily about the evacuation of civilians, but demands humanitarian access to civilians and medical evacuations,” he stressed to the council, a message repeated by Britain, France and the Netherlands.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia reminded the council that the resolution adopted Saturday also demands that all parties “engage immediately to ensure full and comprehensive implementation” of the cease-fire — and “underscores the need for the parties to agree on humanitarian pauses … and truces.”
He stressed that “any enduring pause must be preceded by an agreement of all parties for de-escalation.”
“Demands to overnight, immediately halt hostilities attest to a failure to understand realities on the ground or a deliberate exploitation of human tragedy,” Nebenzia said.
“Everything is being done” to ensure the effective operation of the five-hour daily pauses in eastern Ghouta, he said, blaming militants for using the pauses on Tuesday and Wednesday “to stage an onslaught.”
In an exemption from the cease-fire, the resolution allows military attacks to continue against extremists from the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and the Nusra Front — targets Syria and Russia as well as US-backed forces say they are pursuing.
Nebenzia said what is needed above all in eastern Ghouta is “to effectively neutralize” the Nusra Front, calling for cooperation to get rid of the extremist group.
He was sharply critical of the West, and especially the United States, for fancying themselves as “champions of humanity” and saying a cease-fire depends almost entirely on Russia and Syria.
“What is occurring right now is greatly reminiscent of the situation around eastern Aleppo when the West rolled out a horrendous wave of anti-Russian hysteria,” Nebenzia said.
“Russia is daily undertaking efforts to ensure a cessation of hostilities, for humanitarian pauses to be established, to alleviate the plight of suffering civilians,” he told council members.
“At least one of your countries, have you lifted a finger to do something? Have you had influence to bear on those whom you view as the moderate opposition? Have you told them to lay down their weapons?,” Nebenzia asked.
Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari echoed Russia’s criticism of the West telling the council “the main responsibility for ceasing hostilities is on groups that have influence on terrorist groups.”
“We are supportive of the cease-fire, the cessation of hostilities with some conditions,” he told reporters later. “We cannot do it alone. … You need to have a commitment by the supporters of these terrorists in eastern Ghouta to implement the resolution, meaning stopping sending weapons.”