De Mistura warns Syrian situation is at its worst for years

Increasing government attacks on rebels and the involvement of foreign powers make current state of affairs so dangerous

Forty-five-year-old Samir Salim (L), who along with his three brothers are members of the White Helmets rescue forces, looks out at destroyed buildings in the town of Medeira in Syria's rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area on February 12, 2018. 

For years, Samir Salim and his brothers rescued neighbours and relatives pinned underground after bombardment on Syria's rebel-held Eastern Ghouta. But last week, they could not save their own mother. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA
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Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations mediator attempting to resolve the conflict in Syria, has warned that the situation in the country is at its most dangerous in years, as the emboldened Assad regime continues to pound rebel-held areas and foreign powers are drawn into the civil war.

“I have been now four years [as] special envoy, this is a violent and worrying and dangerous a moment as any that I've seen in my time,” Mr de Mistura told the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). His intervention came just a week after more than 200 private Russian military contractors were killed by US forces after a failed attack on a base in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor region.

It also saw Syrian government forces, backed by their Russian and Iranian allies, bombarded two of the last major rebel-held areas: Eastern Ghouta and the northwestern province of Idlib.

Since the beginning of 2018, Turkey has been waging an offensive against Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria. And to make matters worse, on Saturday, Syrian government anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in the country.

The UNSC is negotiating a possible resolution, drafted by Kuwait and Sweden, that would demand a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of sick and wounded.

“What we are seeing in Syria today not only imperils the de-escalation arrangements and regional stability, it also undermines the efforts for a political solution. Yet, we will not be deterred from pursuing the Geneva process, which is the only sustainable path toward a political solution,” Mr De Mistura, an Italian-Swedish diplomat of longstanding, said.

The UN-led Geneva process to try and broker an end to the conflict has been making little or no progress. Moscow has set up a parallel peace process which has been boycotted by the Syrian opposition. Last year Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed ‘de-escalation’ zones to ease hostilities in western Syria where they wield influence.

The US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that Russia was supposed to guarantee adherence to the de-escalation zones and the removal of all chemical weapons from its ally Syria.

“Instead, we see the Assad regime continue to bomb, starve and yes, gas, civilians,” Ms Haley said, referring to President Bashar Al Assad’s government. “Russia can push the regime to commit to seeking a real peace in Syria ... now is the time for Russia to use that leverage.”

Russia’s envoy to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, pushed back on these remarks, saying the Syrian political process should be free from “external pressure”. He also called on the United States to “exert their influence” on Syrian opposition fighters to ensure they cease hostilities.