Russia’s United Nations envoy said Wednesday his government is not “about to be apologetic” for its airstrikes in Syria, which have been widely criticized for targeting the armed opposition instead of Islamic State terrorists.
“We are acting in a very transparent manner,” Vitaly Churkin told reporters after a closed session of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the escalating humanitarian situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo. “We are present there legally, at the invitation of the Syrian government,” he added.
Western governments have heavily criticized Russian airstrikes, which began in late September with the stated goal of diminishing Islamic State. Instead, the air campaign has dealt some crippling blows to the moderate armed opposition and led to the displacement of tens of thousands of Syrians.
In the past week, the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Lebanese Shi’ite militants from Hezbollah, have been waging an offensive against rebel-held parts of Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo. The increased fighting also has been blamed for the rapid breakdown of new peace talks in Geneva.
“As to the actions of the Syrian forces, supported by the Russian air force, our Western colleagues on the eve of Geneva II, used to say some balance on the ground must be restored. So if there is some change in the balance on the ground, then that should be taken as a logical development in any armed conflict," said Churkin.
Geneva II was the last round of failed peace talks among the parties that was held in Switzerland 13 months ago.
The United Nations says the nearly five-year war has killed more than 250,000 people, displaced 7 million within Syria and nearly 4.6 million others have fled as refugees. Much of the remaining population – some 13.5 million people – is in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Many of them live in hard-to-reach or besieged areas which aid workers cannot reach.
Ambassador Churkin criticized council members for having several meetings on the humanitarian crisis, calling it a “propagandistic use of the Syrian humanitarian file.” He said it would not deter Moscow from the humanitarian work it is doing with the Syrian government. Churkin said Moscow is also discussing possible humanitarian cooperation with the World Food Program and with the United States.
Council members New Zealand and Spain are urging consideration of a humanitarian pause for besieged areas.
“We ask that serious consideration be given to a humanitarian pause to enable assistance to get through, because it‘s clear aid is not getting into Madaya and other besieged areas,” said Ambassador Gerard Jacobus Van Bohemen of New Zealand.
He said the “great division” within the Security Council over the military campaigns in Syria is “a real problem for us all.” He urged that the suspended political talks get under way as quickly as possible, saying a political solution is the only real way to end the humanitarian crisis.
France’s ambassador told reporters that there must be a “tangible improvement” in the humanitarian situation for there to be a “credible, political negotiation.”
“The regime and its allies cannot pretend they are extending a hand to the opposition, while with their other hand they are trying to destroy them,” François Delattre said.
Syrian Envoy Bashar Ja’afari accused some council members of having “a full-fledged obsession” with his country’s “so-called humanitarian situation.”
The United Nations and its partners have asked for more than $8 billion to cover this year’s needs in Syria and for the refugees living in neighboring countries.
On Thursday, nations in the International Syria Support Group will meet in Munich. Moscow has said it plans to present a proposal for a Syrian cease-fire at the meeting.
On Wednesday, 160 humanitarian agencies appealed for an immediate cease-fire and unimpeded, sustained access to bring lifesaving relief to those affected by the worsening violence in Syria.
The humanitarian agencies include the World Food Program, UNHCR and UNICEF, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Care, Caritas, Islamic Relief, World Vision and scores of other NGOs from all over the world.
“These are practical actions. There is no practical reason they could not be implemented if there is the will to do so,” the appeal stated. “In the name of our shared humanity… for the sake of the millions of innocents who have already suffered so much… and for the millions more whose lives and futures hang in the balance, we call for action now.”