US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday called for a war crimes investigation of the bombing campaign by Russia and the Assad government in the Syrian civil war, charging that they were continuing to attack hospitals as part of a deliberate strategy to terrorize civilians.
“Russia and the regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals, and medical facilities, and children and women,” Mr. Kerry said before meeting at the State Department with his French counterpart.
“These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes, and those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions,” Mr. Kerry added. “This is a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians.”
Mr. Kerry’s remarks came one day before the United Nations Security Council was expected to vote on a French-drafted resolution that calls for a cease-fire in Aleppo and the grounding of Russian and Syrian warplanes that have been pummeling the besieged city.
Russia has asserted that it is targeting terrorist groups, and Moscow’s envoy to the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, threatened to veto the measure. “I cannot possibly see how we can let this resolution pass,” he said on Friday.
Still, the United States and its Western partners appear to be hoping they can build pressure on Russia and the Syrian government to ease their offensive by highlighting attacks on civilians.
Russian fighter jets have been bombing eastern Aleppo for the last two weeks, joined by their allies in the Syrian Air Force. Russia says the targets are the Nusra Front, a banned terrorist organization. The United Nations envoy, Staffan de Mistura, this week offered to personally escort Nusra fighters out of the city, saying pointedly that their presence was being used as an “alibi” to destroy the city; for that to happen of course, Russian and Syrian airstrikes would have to stop.
At least 376 civilians have been killed by Russian and Syrian strikes in eastern Aleppo since Sept. 23, Mr. de Mistura said.
His humanitarian adviser, Jan Egeland, said by email that “the civilian population is now in a free-fall.” He predicted that food would run out “in weeks, water is extremely scarce and there is little or no electricity.”
In his comments on Friday, Mr. Kerry said that 20 people had been killed and 100 wounded in a recent attack on a hospital. A State Department spokesman said later that Mr. Kerry was referring to a recent spate of attacks against hospitals near Damascus, which have been documented by the humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders.
It is not clear how Mr. Kerry thinks a war crimes investigation might be carried out in the face of Russian opposition. In 2014, Russia and China used their vetoes to block a Security Council resolution that would have authorized the International Criminal Court to investigate the perpetrators of war crimes in Syria.
“The secretary’s not getting ahead of a process here,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman. “But he does think this is a conversation worth having inside the international community.”
The suspension of American-Russian talks on the reduction of violence in Syria has led the White House to take a fresh look at options, including the possibility of military force, to head off the fall of Aleppo and deter the government of President Bashar al-Assad from continuing its offensive.
But there is no indication that President Obama has dropped his strong reservations about deepening American involvement in the conflict, which currently consists of a modest covert program to train and arm the Syrian opposition to the Assad government.
While American intervention appears highly unlikely, the Russian Ministry of Defense has sought to discourage any consideration of a military strike against Syrian forces. The ministry’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, warned this week that American warplanes could become targets of Russian antiaircraft missiles if they strike Syrian government positions.
Russia has already deployed a formidable air defense system in Syria: the S-400, which has the range to reach approaches to the Turkish air base at Incirlik, which American warplanes have used to carry out many of their airstrikes against the Islamic State.
This week, the Russians said they had also deployed an S-300 air defense system to its naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Russian officials have suggested that the system could be used to defend against cruise missile attacks.
“Last time I checked, the Russians said that their primary goal was to fight extremism, ISIL and Nusra, in Syria,” Peter Cook, the Pentagon spokesman, said on Tuesday, using a different name for the Islamic State. “Neither one has an air force. So I would question just what the purpose of this system is.”
On Saturday, the focus will be on the diplomatic arena — namely, the Security Council meeting, which the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, is planning to attend despite the Russian threat to veto his nation’s resolution.
The French resolution calls for the United Nations to return to the short-lived cease-fire, which the United Nations would monitor. “There is no time to waste,” said François Delattre, the French ambassador to the United Nations.
New York Times