Just when it seemed it could not get any worse, it did. Syria’s partial “cessation of hostilities”, on which shaky hopes of peace rest, rapidly unravelled last week. Amid a suddenly mounting toll of dead and injured came reports of renewed atrocities. In Aleppo, a hospital was bombed, killing up to 27 people, including doctors and children. The attack by Bashar al-Assad’s air force fitted an established, pre-ceasefire pattern of deliberately targeting civilians in hospitals, schools and markets. What has changed now is that this murderous regime, buoyed by Russian support and reinvigorated by the ceasefire, barely bothers to deny it.
Aleppo’s plight captured attention, not least because senior UN officials used it to dramatise their pleas to the US and others to rescue the peace talks in Switzerland, described as all but dead. “The violence is soaring back to the levels prior to the cessation of hostilities. There are deeply disturbing reports of military build-ups indicating a lethal escalation,” said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s human rights chief. “The Geneva talks were the only game in town. If they are abandoned, I dread to think how much more horror we will see in Syria.”
Less fully reported was the plight of starving Syrians marooned and besieged elsewhere in the country. “Deliberately deprived of food and medicine, many face the most appalling conditions. We must all be ashamed that this is happening on our watch,” said Stephen O’Brien, head of UN relief operations, pointing to the dire situation in Homs, Idlib, Latakia and rural Damascus. Thanks partly to the ceasefire, 3.7 million people received food aid in March, he said. Cross-border convoys so far this year reached nearly twice as many people as in the same period in 2015.
This limited progress is now at risk from renewed fighting, with Assad’s forces, in particular, again obstructing aid convoys. “Last week, on the convoy to Rastan, the Syrian authorities removed medicines from supplies and scissors and anaesthetic medicines from midwifery kits. This inhumane practice directly leads to unnecessary suffering and loss of life,” O’Brien reported. Denial of medical supplies in time of war is a gross breach of humanitarian law, yet it is happening again. There can be no excuse. It is wholly monstrous. An accounting must be made. And, one day, the perpetrators will pay for their crimes.
Or so we say. Sadly, the unpalatable reality is that such vows and declarations, whether issued by UN officials, relief agencies, government ministers, MPs or newspaper editorials, will be contemptuously ignored, as they have been for the past five years, until the principal external actors in this tragedy stop playing power games and start taking responsibility. Foremost among them are Russia and Iran, Assad’s main backers. In March, Vladimir Putin declared his forces were withdrawing. This now seems to have been a ruse chiefly designed to reassure public opinion at home and defuse international criticism of indiscriminate Russian bombing. As concern over Aleppo grew, Moscow said it would support a temporary, limited “regime of calm”.
It would be good, but ingenuous, to believe Putin is sincere. There is no evidence his broader objectives in Syria – maintaining Russia’s bases, projecting Moscow’s influence across the Middle East, keeping the Americans out – have changed. His bombers may be flying fewer missions, but they continue to shield Assad.
Likewise, Iran’s leadership appears to view Syria, expediently, as just another front in its region-wide power contest with Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf monarchies. And it is no use looking to the Arab states to get peace back on track. Their collective record is pitiful.
So once again, as the UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, acknowledged last week, it falls to the US to do something – anything – with a leader-less Europe playing its usual support role. At last week’s Hanover summit, Obama showed no interest in spending political capital on an insoluble problem his intellectual analysis tells him must be left to play itself out. But in terms of practical politics and human decency, Obama must act. He may not be able to solve Syria. Yet only he can get Putin on board. Only he can knock heads together, get the parties back to Geneva, cement a ceasefire in place, reduce the carnage and maybe cut a deal with Moscow on Assad’s future. Given his past mistakes, and for the sake of Syria’s devastated people, he has an obligation at least to try.