Envoy: Assault threatens to transform Aleppo into ‘giant graveyard’

Aid workers with the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, a local humanitarian group, pass by bodies after artillery fire struck the Jub al-Quba district in Aleppo, Syria, on Nov. 30, 2016. (Credit: Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets /Facebook)

A senior U.N. official pleaded with the U.N. Security Council to immediately stop the Syrian government’s deadly assault on the city of Aleppo.

“For the sake of humanity we call on – we plead – with the parties and those with influence to do everything in their power to protect civilians and enable access to the besieged part of eastern Aleppo before it becomes one giant graveyard,” said Stephen O’Brien, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

Nearly 30,000 people have fled eastern Aleppo since Saturday, U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura said today. All hospitals in the city are destroyed and humanitarian assistance is cut off by the government siege on the city. People trapped in the city are desperate.

“People have resorted to scavenging as U.N. humanitarian food stocks have been exhausted, while prices of scarce basic food and fuel supplies have dramatically risen to levels that most remaining civilians are unable to afford,” O’Brien told the special Security Council session. “People are trapped and terrified. They are running out of time.”

The National Coalition, an opposition group in Syria, demanded that the Security Council “take immediate, definitive steps to protect civilians in Aleppo,” in a letter presented Wednesday, according to Agence France-Presse. The National Coalition leader, Anas al-Abdeh, used language similar to O’Brien’s, writing that government forces transformed parts of Aleppo “into a coffin.”

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More than 250,000 people are believed to be in eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held part of the city. The Syrian government and its allies laid siege to the city four months ago. Attacks on the city increased in recent weeks as the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad try to capture the whole city.

Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, backs the Assad regime. The government provides support through military aid and direct intervention. Russia’s veto power prevents the Security Council from taking action on Syria. Nearly 1 million Syrians are trapped in besieged cities, a fact O’Brien wants leaders to remember. Aleppo is the face of the nearly six-year-old civil war.

The U.N. says it has food aid available for 150,000 people in western Aleppo. O’Brien says the aid and other humanitarian supplies are prepositioned to reach people in the city. Distributing aid requires the support of the Syrian government, which is also actively trying to capture the city.

Special Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Jan Egeland announced last month that the last food rations were delivered in Aleppo. The U.N.’s aid convoy plan for December is pending the approval of the Syrian government, said Egeland to the media today. A humanitarian pause and permission to provide assistance are needed immediately.

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“There are no more vulnerable people on earth probably than the civilian population in Aleppo,” he told the media. “And they are extremely vulnerable for possible actions by the armed opposition groups as they try to leave and by all of the groups that will meet them as they leave.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said hundreds of people trying to flee Aleppo were detained by Syrian government forces. The military denied the accusations, saying it is checking the identities of civilians to make sure there are no rebels. The British-based rights group disagrees, saying people are being detained. More than 300 people are missing, said the group on Wednesday.

“I am often asked: Why on earth can’t the Security Council come together and stop the suffering of the people in Syria?” said O’Brien. “The people of Syria have suffered far too much and for far too long. … I urge you all for political solution so that we can give some semblance of hope to the many millions of Syrian families who will not sleep tonight, but will be hungry, sick, and fearing for their lives.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.