Kerry warns Aleppo must not become new Srebrenica

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State John Kerry warned tens of thousands of Syrian civilians are still trapped in Aleppo and must not face a Srebrenica-style massacre.
Washington’s top diplomat expressed moral outrage at the fate of the city, but offered no new plan to end the civil war, demanding that Syrian President Bashar al Assad agree to peace talks.
“What has happened already in Aleppo is unconscionable,” Kerry told a news briefing in Washington.
“But there remains tens of thousands of lives that are now concentrated into a very small area of Aleppo,” he said.
“And the last thing anybody wants to see… is that small area turns into another Srebrenica,” he said, referring to a 1995 Bosnian war massacre.
Kerry vigorously defended US diplomatic efforts to end the war — all of which have been futile — and in which Assad, backed by Russia and militias, has gained the upper hand in the latest turn of the nearly six-year-old conflict.
Ultimately, Washington was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Syrian government and its allies mounted an assault to pin down the rebels in a steadily shrinking pocket of territory in eastern Aleppo, culminating in this week’s ceasefire deal.
“There is absolutely no justification whatsoever for the indiscriminate and savage brutality against civilians shown by the regime and by its Russian and allies over the past few weeks, or indeed for the past five years,” Kerry told reporters as a first convoy of hundreds Aleppo civilians made use of a ceasefire to flee the city. “We are seeing the unleashing of a sectarian passion.”
Kerry said the United States was seeking an immediate, verifiable and durable cessation of hostilities in Aleppo, and said it appeared that air strikes and shelling had stopped and that convoys were moving out.
But there were also reports that a convoy of injured people had been fired on by Syrian government forces or their allies, he said.
Activists and residents inside the remaining rebel enclave said this week that pro-government militias had summarily executed dozens of civilians.
Russia has denied that its strikes had killed civilians in large numbers, and said this week that rebels were keeping people in east Aleppo as human shields.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this month that Russia would treat rebels who stay in east Aleppo as “terrorists.”
Kerry has repeatedly invested diplomatic capital into deals with Russia that would establish a ceasefire between Assad forces and anti-government rebels, only to have those deals largely ignored by Damascus and Moscow.
In recent days, he has publicly expressed frustration with the complete failure of diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting.
Speaking in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, Kerry on Thursday reiterated long-standing US policy on Syria, and called on the international community to exert pressure on all parties to end the war.
Five years of international efforts aimed at reaching a peace deal have failed to do so.
Kerry has little leverage to influence the situation in Syria, former and current diplomats say, partly because of President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to involve the United States heavily in Syria’s war.
The United States has provided some support to moderate rebels.
“He just feels that the Russians and the allies are culpable and he wanted to make sure that’s clear. At the same time, he also wants to say ‘I am always willing to do more diplomacy,’ which is kind of a ridiculous position,” a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
“It’s not going to get solved in the next (five) weeks. There is something about the Middle East that doesn’t meet US schedules,” the official added, alluding to the January 20 transfer of power from Obama to President-elect Donald Trump.
Obama’s caution, predicated on the goal of avoiding deeper military entanglements in the Middle East, has prompted criticism from officials in his administration, including dozens of American diplomats who wrote a leaked internal memo this year calling for more aggressive action against Assad, including military strikes.
Assad has vowed to fight until he has regained full control of the country.
The government’s takeover of Aleppo, the most populous city in Syria before the war, would mark a major victory for him. — Reuters