A three-day “humanitarian pause” in Aleppo called for by the Russian Defense Ministry ended on Saturday with a new wave of shelling by Russian jets and renewed fighting on the ground.
The unilateral pause was intended to allow civilians and medical personnel to leave the embattled eastern districts of Syria’s largest city, the center of a multipolar conflict which has pitched Russia and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s forces against those of Western governments and Syrian opposition groups.
The pause, which had been extended several times, was ended despite protests by the U.N. who sought more time to evacuate civilians.
Mortar fire hit eastern Aleppo’s al-Mashhad neighborhood, part of a key frontline area in the conflict, on Saturday evening. Skirmishes on the ground, which had already been taking place during the day, left several injured in the al-Mashhad and Salaheddine districts, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
The ceasefire was called for by the Russian government to allow the free movement of humanitarian aid and for residents of eastern Aleppo to leave the city in safety. Few, however, were able to leave during the pause in fighting.
Of the eight corridors of escape announced by Russia and Syria, none permitted the free passage of those wishing to leave the city. The SOHR also reported that attempt by local committees in Aleppo to evacuate the wounded were unsuccessful.
While Syrian state media characterized the rebels as using civilians as “human shields” and Moscow said that rebels had prevented civilians from leaving the city (Russian military official Sergei Rudskoi said they were using the ceasefire “in their best interests”), Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria, said that evacuations were impossible due to the lack of security for aid workers and local committees in the city.
While the conflict has destroyed much of the infrastructure of eastern Aleppo and killed thousands of combatants, the main victims of the Syrian Civil War and of the recent violence in Aleppo have been civilians. More than 2,000 civilians have been wounded and nearly 500 killed since the recent attemps by Russia and Syria to retake rebel-held districts in the east began in September. Between 250,000 and 300,000 civilians are believed to be trapped within eastern Aleppo. Food and medical supplies are desperately low, and civilian sites, including hospitals, have been repeatedly bombed.
The unilateral nature of the recent ceasefire, which prevents international cooperation, prevented the U.N. from achieving its humanitarian goals in the city.
“You have various parties to the conflict and those with influence,” said David Swanson, spokesman for the U.N.’s humanitarian office.
“They all have to be on the same page on this, and they are not.”
The U.N. had reached out to Russia to attempt to open a dialogue that would lead to a further extension of the ceasefire, but as of Saturday, no further extension was forthcoming. Without further assurances of safety, renewed fighting broke out quickly.
The U.N. Security Council has become the battleground between veto-wielding powers Russia and China, who have continually blocked resolution efforts proposed by Western governments like France and the United States. The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon have suggested that Russian and Syrian actions in Aleppo may constitute war crimes.
On Friday, a UNHRC resolution by a special council called for “a comprehensive, independent special inquiry into the events in Aleppo”. It asked for unrestricted humanitarian access to civilians and an immediate end to military bombardment in Aleppo.
While the U.N. has continually reiterated its demands, changed behavior by Russia have been unforthcoming. Because one veto can block any U.N. Security Council action, Western powers are expressing more panic and urgency than ever regarding the deteriorating situation in Aleppo.
Part of Western governments’ outrage stems from the use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia. The recent release of a 13-month-long inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) revealed that Assad’s forces have used chlorine gas as part of their attacks on civilians.
“We strongly urge all UN member states and parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, including Russia and Iran, which continue to conduct military operations on behalf of the Assad regime, to unequivocally support these efforts and sustain our shared commitment to the international standard against chemical weapons use,” said Ned Price, spokesperson of the White House’s National Security Council.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Assad regime’s defiance of the longstanding global norm against chemical weapons use and Syria’s abrogation of its responsibilities under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which it joined in 2013.”