The Latest: Russia's amended Syrian UN resolution circulated
Feb. 23, 2018
BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on Syria related developments (all times local):
Russia's amended U.N. resolution would rule out an immediate 30-day cease-fire in Syria to deliver aid and evacuate the critically ill proposed by Sweden and Kuwait and backed by most of the U.N. Security Council.
Instead, the Russian draft circulated Thursday to the U.N. Security Council demands that all parties "stop hostilities as soon as possible" and "work for an immediate and unconditional de-escalation of violence" and "humanitarian pause" for at least 30 days.
It would also condemn the "relentless shelling" of Damascus from the rebel-held suburbs of eastern Ghouta, and deplore "the ongoing attempts by terrorist groups to retake areas and attack civilians and civilian objects."
In a provision that appears aimed at U.S.-backed forces fighting against the Islamic State extremist group and al-Qaida affiliate, the Russian draft also stresses that "foreign military forces can operate in Syria only in coordination with official authorities."
Several council diplomats who examined the Russian draft, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said it was unacceptable.
The United States is accusing Syrian President Bashar Assad of planning "to bomb or starve" opponents in the besieged Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta into submission — just as it did in Aleppo, Hama and Homs.
Kelley Currie, the U.S. ambassador for economic and social affairs, told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that bombing attacks on eastern Ghouta "have been relentless" and Assad "wants to keep bombing and gassing these 400,000 people."
She said the Syrian leader is counting on Russia, a key ally and veto-wielding member of the council, to make sure it "is unable to stop their suffering."
Currie said Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia asked council members on Wednesday to "come up with ways of getting out of this situation."
She said the answer is simple — immediately adopt the resolution sponsored by Sweden and Kuwait ordering a 30-day cease-fire throughout Syria.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock is urging the Security Council to order a desperately needed cease-fire to deliver food and medicine and save lives in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere in Syria.
Lowcock briefed a council meeting Thursday called by Russia on the situation in the capital's suburbs known as eastern Ghouta, which he called "a living example of an entirely known, predictable, and preventable humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes."
According to reports documented by the U.N. human rights office, at least 346 civilians have been killed since Feb. 1 and close to 900 have been injured.
Lowcock was sharply critical of the lack of humanitarian access, saying less than 2 percent of the besieged population has received aid since Dec. 1.
He said nearly 2 million people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas received aid in the first 11 months of 2017 — but last year's access levels were nearly 40 percent below access levels in 2016.
Lowcock said: "When an entire generation is robbed of its future, when hospital attacks have become the new normal, when sieges of entire cities and neighborhoods have become a lasting reality for hundreds of thousands of people, the international community must take urgent and concrete action."
Sweden's U.N. ambassador is pleading with Security Council members to urgently support a resolution ordering a 30-day cease-fire throughout Syria and lifting the siege of the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta.
Olof Skoog told a council meeting Thursday called by Russia that halting incessant attacks on the suburbs will "avert a situation that is beyond words in its desperation."
In seven years of war in Syria, he said, "the situation in besieged eastern Ghouta has never been worse."
Russia has called the resolution unrealistic and proposed last-minute amendments Thursday. Skoog said they will be considered and he was leaning toward a vote Friday.
Skoog said the role of the Security Council is to push the warring parties to comply with a cessation of hostilities.
"I think that we can make a difference," he said. "And I do think that we are tested today, not just as ambassadors of our countries, but as human beings — and that is a massive responsibility."
The United States says the situation in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta is a reminder that "Russia bears unique responsibility for what is taking place there."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert says that without Russia's backing for Syria's government, "the devastation and the deaths certainly would not be occurring." She also says it shows "the failure of the Astana process." She was referring to a negotiating track for Syria that Russia has been organizing in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Nauert says that the failure of that process is why the U.S. and other countries are standing by the U.N.-led political process for Syria in Geneva.
She says the situation in eastern Ghouta mirrors the humanitarian disaster that took place in Aleppo, Syria when the Syrian government retook the city from rebel forces in 2016.
The Syrian army has dropped leaflets over rebel-held eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus, calling on residents to leave for their own safety and urging opposition fighters to hand themselves over.
The leaflets were dropped by helicopters over the area known as eastern Ghouta on Thursday, telling residents that they are surrounded from all sides by the Syrian army.
It blamed insurgents for the deaths of thousands of women and children and for forcing the Ghouta residents to live in shelters. It says residents who leave will be given shelter, food, medical assistance and will be able to return to their homes "once terrorism is wiped out."
The leaflets were similar to those dropped over rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, before the area was stormed by government forces in December 2016.
Syria's Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar al-Ja'afari told the council on Thursday that Ghouta will be the "second Aleppo."
Another leaflet, directed at the rebels, called on the opposition fighters to approach specific areas without their weapons. Each fighter is to carry a leaflet in one hand and hold the other over his head.
Syrian state TV says a convoy carrying aid and heading toward the northern town of Afrin has been targeted by Turkish artillery, inflicting casualties.
The TV gave no further details about Thursday's incident, which came two days after pro-government fighters began entering the predominantly Kurdish town.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said in a statement that it has suspended its pre-planned convoy to Afrin area, in cooperation with the International Committee of Red Cross due to the lack of safe passage and guarantees of not targeting the operation.
Turkey launched military operations in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin on June 20 to uproot the main Kurdish militia in Syria. Turkey says the militia is linked to the Kurdish insurgency inside its own borders.
Russia's U.N. ambassador is accusing the global media of a massive disinformation campaign about the situation in the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta — and not reporting the "inconvenient truth" that several thousand fighters are there, including affiliates of the al-Qaida-linked "terrorist" organization.
Vassily Nebenzia told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday on the situation in eastern Ghouta that dozens of rockets have been launched into every area of the capital and fighters locate themselves in medical and educational facilities.
He said the Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue volunteers, known as the White Helmets, "are the main roots of the well-paid-for misinformation campaign that has been rolled out" besmirching the Syrian government and Russia, its close ally.
Nebenzia called the council meeting as Sweden and Kuwait were pressing for a vote on a proposed U.N. resolution ordering a 30-day cease-fire throughout Syria.
He asked why Sweden and Kuwait were pushing for a vote when they are "fully aware there is no agreement on it" and ended his speech saying Russia was circulating amendments to the draft resolution.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has met with visiting special envoy of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
They two discussed coordination between Damascus and Moscow in fighting insurgent groups in Syria.
Russia has been a main backer of Assad since Syria's seven-year conflict began, and in 2015 joined the war backing Syrian government forces.
Alexander Lavrentiev's visit comes as government forces are pounding rebel-held eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital. Opposition activists say the violence has killed nearly 400 people over the past five days.
Activists say Russian warplanes are taking part in the bombardment of the suburbs, an area known as eastern Ghouta.
Assad's Facebook page posted a photograph of Thursday's meeting saying he and Lavrentiev discussed ways to intensify common efforts to "create suitable climates to push the political process forward."
It quoted Lavrentiev as saying that the escalation of attacks by insurgents and the support of some "regional and Western" powers "demonstrate the hypocrisy of those states and the falseness of their allegations that they work to end the war in Syria and accomplish a political solution."
The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is "shocked" by the level of violence near the Syrian capital, Damascus, and is calling for immediate access to civilians in the rebel-held besieged areas.
Robert Mardini, ICRC's regional director for the Mideast, told reporters in Beirut on Thursday that the international aid agency has a convoy of food, medicines and medical supplies ready to be delivered to the rebel-held eastern suburbs known as eastern Ghouta.
Syrian government forces have been bombarding eastern Ghouta for weeks. Opposition activists say that 382 people, including dozens of children, have been killed since Sunday.
Mardini says humanitarian access is urgently needed and "should be granted immediately." He says ICRC has been in contact with authorities for "many days" but has not been given the green light.
He said that "scores were killed over the past days, statistics are staggering, but many can still be saved and this is our priority today."
"Children, women and men are exhausted and terrified in eastern Ghouta. They are on their knees, weakened because of months of being besieged with lack of access to the basic needs."
Mardini added that rebels are also striking government-held Damascus with mortar shells, adding that "maybe this is a reality that is not really reported."
A spokesman for a Syrian search-and-rescue group says the people of eastern Ghouta, just outside of Damascus, are being targeted by the government's military operation for "extermination."
Siraj Mahmoud of the Syrian Civil Defense says four rescue workers of the organization, also known as White Helmets, have been killed since the government stepped up shelling and airstrikes on Sunday night on he besieged, rebel-held Damascus suburbs.
Mahmoud's statement came in a voice note shared with journalists on Thursday. He says schools, hospitals, markets, rescue workers, and residential areas have all come under concentrated fire.
He says: "Everyone knows it is an extermination."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says 33 civilians have been killed on Thursday. It says that up to 382 civilians, among them 94 children, have been killed since Sunday night.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Moscow will consider supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Syria if it does not cover fighters from the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee.
Lavrov's Thursday statement comes amid a dire humanitarian crisis in the eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus. Syrian opposition activists and paramedics on Thursday reported a fresh round of violence as bombing in rebel-held eastern Ghouta left 13 people dead.
Lavrov said in comments relayed by Russian news agencies on Thursday that Russia is proposing the wording for the U.N. resolution that would exclude the IS, the al-Qaida linked group as well as unspecified "groups that cooperate with them and systematically shell residential areas of Damascus."
Hundreds of people have gathered in the main square in the northern Syrian town of Afrin celebrating the arrival of hundreds of pro-government fighters into the area.
TV footage showed fighters in camouflage uniforms standing among scores of men who gathered in the main square waving posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
During Thursday's gathering, Turkish warplanes could be heard flying overhead making some of those gathering to flee the area.
The pro-government Syrian daily Al-Watan said that some 500 fighters from the so-called Popular Forces have entered the Afrin region since Tuesday.
Al-Watan said the fighters came to Afrin to defend it against Turkey's military operations there that have been ongoing since Jan. 20.
Turkey launched the military operations to uproot the main Kurdish militia known as the YPG, from Afrin. It says the group is linked to a Kurdish insurgency inside its own borders
Scores of people have gathered outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul to protest attacks on the rebel-held suburb of eastern Ghouta in Syria's capital.
The group, including prominent Syrian opposition figures, on Thursday chanted Syrian songs and slogans denouncing a Syrian government forces' bombing campaign that has targeted hospitals, apartment blocks and other civilian sites.
Hundreds of people have been killed or wounded in the campaign in recent days.
The protesters chanted: "Russia get out of Syria" and "Iran get out of Syria" in Turkish and Arabic.
Former Syrian opposition leader George Sabra and former Syrian cosmonaut Mohammed Faris took part in the demonstration.
Russian news reports say Moscow has beefed up its forces in Syria with several warplanes, including its latest fighter jets.
Russian news outlets on Thursday carried pictures of a pair of Su-57 fighters heading to land at Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia that serves as the main hub for Russian operations in Syria. An early warning A-50 plane, four Su-35 fighters and four Su-25 ground attack jets also arrived at the base Wednesday.
The Kremlin on Thursday wouldn't comment on the reports, referring the questions to the military that remained mum about the deployment.
The new warplanes' arrival comes amid the Syrian government's offensive on eastern outskirts of Damascus. Russia has rejected allegations it was responsible for the mounting civilian casualties in eastern Ghouta.
A Syrian, state-affiliated newspaper says a new deployment of pro-government fighters have arrived in the Kurdish-run region of Afrin in northern Syria to defend against Turkey's military operations there.
Al-Watan reported Thursday that 500 pro-government militiamen have been deployed to Afrin, including a group sent Wednesday night. The paper says they have taken positions along the region's borders.
A spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia that controls the area says the pro-government fighters have armored vehicles with them.
Nuri Mehmud says the fighters entered Afrin at the request of Kurdish authorities "to defend Syrian lands."
Turkey launched military operations earlier this month to uproot the YPG from Afrin. It says the group is linked to a Kurdish insurgency inside its own borders.
Syrian opposition activists and paramedics are reporting a fresh round of disaster as bombing in the rebel-held eastern suburbs of the capital Damascus has left 13 people dead.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activist collective Ghouta Media Center say the bombings targeted areas including Arbeen, Douma, Kfar Batna and Saqba.
The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, that works in opposition-held areas said its paramedics have rushed to several areas after the shelling.
The Observatory said at least 13 people, including three children and three women, were killed in Arbeen on Thursday.
Syrian government forces have been pounding rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus, also known as eastern Ghouta, for weeks.
The Observatory said that since the latest wave began on Sunday, 335 people have been killed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is calling for the European Union to step up pressure on Russia and Iran to end the violence in Syria.
Hundreds have been killed amid increased bombardments in recent days and Merkel told Parliament on Thursday: "The regime is not fighting against terrorists, but against its own people, killing children, destroying hospitals, and this is a massacre to be condemned."
Besides President Bashar Assad, himself, Merkel says "Iran and Russia have a particular responsibility," as they are both supporting the government forces.
She says Germany's foreign minister plans to talk directly with his Russian counterpart and called for other EU nations to also do what they can.
Merkel says "we need to do everything in our power to put an end to this massacre."