During a news conference on Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Russian warships headed currently en route for Syria could be used to target civilians in Aleppo. He also called on Moscow to implement an enduring ceasefire.
A “battle group” of eight aircraft carriers took off from northern Russia last week where it has moved through the English Channel before heading to Gibraltar. From there, it will be moved to the eastern Mediterranean, NATO officials have said, where it could be used to launch aircraft that would bomb civilian targets in northwestern Syria by early November.
The group consists of Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, a nuclear-powered battle cruiser, two anti-submarine warships and four support vessels. It carries dozens of helicopters and fighter bombers. The fleet will join Russia’s existing naval vessels near the Syrian coast. Its deployment has been viewed by many as a show of Russian force and has been called a legal military exercise by Washington’s NATO envoy.
“The problem would arise if this ship contributes to the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in northwest Syria, particularly in and around Aleppo,” said U.S. Ambassador Douglas Lute.
“The battle group may be used to increase Russia’s ability to take part in combat operations over Syria and to conduct even more air strikes against Aleppo,” said Stoltenberg.
“The concern is that the carrier group can be used as a platform for increased air strikes against civilians in Aleppo.”
Russia has used the claim that it is fighting ISIS in Aleppo to justify the intense wave of bombing it has unleashed on the city’s eastern half since September. Russia has thus far not acknowledged any other geostrategic aims in Syria.
“It is continually the case that [ISIS] is not who they are targeting”, said Lute. “ISIL is not in Aleppo.“
The Syrian and Russian governments faced renewed criticism from the international community on Tuesday as Britain and France pushed for the U.N. Security Council to impose new sanctions on the Syrian government after the publication a 13-month analysis revealed that Assad’s regime forces used chlorine gas for the third time in the war.
The U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) produced a joint report blaming the Syrian government for a gas attack for the third time; a copy of the report was obtained by Reuters on Friday. Several other suspected instances of chlorine gas being used were mentioned by the report but could not be confirmed.
The report said that Syrian forces used helicopters to drop barrel bombs that released chlorine gas, which causes suffocation, on civilian targets.
“Those with effective control in the military units … must be held accountable”, the report said.
British ambassador to the U.N. Matthew Rycroft said that the council that the U.N. Security Council, which launched the investigation, now needs to “make sure there is genuine accountability and that means sanctions.”
French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre called for a resolution to punish those responsible for the attacks. He also called for a separate resolution allowing the council to extend the mandate of the U.N./OPCW investigation, which expires on Oct. 31, for up to a year.
“We call for a resolution of the council to sanction the authors of these crimes,” Delattre told reporters. “When the use of weapons of mass destruction are at stake, weakness and impunity are simply not an option.”
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power joined in France’s call for an extension of the inquiry and urged that the Assad government be held responsible for its attacks on civilians.
“Other actors, seeking to terrorize innocents, will be watching to see how the international community responds at this time,” she said on Saturday.
The Security Council will discuss the report during a meeting this Thursday. A showdown between veto-wielding Russia, its ally China, and the Western powers will likely take place, with the successful implementation of sanctions unlikely given Russia’s support for Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.
Russia, for its part, said the conclusions of the U.N./OPCW investigation could not be used by the U.N. to impose sanctions. Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churn said on Tuesday that Moscow was currently analyzing the report.