Deadlock at the UN as West and Russia clash over Ghouta aid failure

More than 580 people have died in the besieged Syrian region during the past fortnight, according to aid officials

epa06564736 People carry posters which read 'save Ghouta' and  flags of the Syrian National Coalition during a protest to demand an immediate cease-fire in Eastern Ghouta, Syria, on the 'Place de la Republique' in Paris, France, 25 February 2018. The United Nations Security Council voted on 24 February 2018 for an immediate cease-fire in the area besieged by the Syrian army and its allies.  EPA/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Western powers clashed with Russia at the United Nations on Wednesday over who was responsible for the failure of aid to reach hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need in Syria, as regime forces launched fresh offensives and aid convoys stood ready to deliver help once the fighting stopped.

More than 580 people have died during the past fortnight, according to aid officials, as government troops pound besieged eastern Ghouta, close to the capital Damascus.

The UN Security Council on Saturday passed a resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire “without delay” after Russian objections to a 72-hour deadline.

On Wednesday, they met to discuss the issue again amid reports of fresh government ground offensives on eastern Ghouta, already one of the bloodiest episodes in the seven-year conflict.

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s aid chief, said he had one simple question for the assembled ambassadors: “When will your resolution be implemented?”

He said aid workers were ready to move into 10 hard-hit areas, including a 45-truck convoy loaded with medicine and food for 90,000 people in eastern Ghouta, but were unable to move.

He offered a withering assessment of the picture on the ground in the days since Saturday.

“More bombing. More fighting. More death. More destruction. More maiming of women and children. More hunger. More misery. More, in other words, of the same,” he said.

He reported air strikes, barrel bombs and artillery shelling two days ago that killed at least 30 civilians. Ambulance drivers, women and children were among those who arrived at health facilities with breathing difficulties and symptoms consistent with the use of chlorine.

And he said two more health facilities had been taken out of service because of air strikes.

Russia has ordered a daily five-hour pause in fighting, but Mr Lowcock said it was inadequate.

“Agencies now have years of experience with this and it can take a day simply to pass checkpoints, even when the parties have agreed. Then you need to offload the goods,” he said.

Although he did not blame Russia directly, others were quick to accuse Moscow of protecting its ally in Syria.

Kelley Currie, the American ambassador for economic and social affairs, described the five-hour pauses as "cynical, callous and in flagrant defiance of the demands" for a cessation of hostilities.

“Russia, Iran and the Assad regime are not even trying to hide their intentions. They are asking civilians to leave eastern Ghouta on the false premise that they can then attack anyone left in the area as much as they would like,” she said.

Similar concerns were expressed by the British, Swedish and French ambassadors.

Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador, said he had made clear all along that complex conditions on the ground complicated efforts to agree a ceasefire.

“Demands to overnight immediately halt hostilities attest to a failure to understand realities on the ground or a deliberate exploitation of human tragedy,” he said.

He added everything possible was being done to support the five-hour pauses and blamed militants for using the breaks to launch their own “onslaught”.

The Russian military claimed a group of civilians managed to flee through a corridor since the truce came into force on Tuesday morning, but aid officials said they were sceptical that many had managed to leave.

A day later, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said rebel shelling had made it impossible for civilians to flee.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that although there were no air strikes during Wednesday’s pause, a heavy bombardment resumed in the afternoon and reported that regime forces had opened three fronts as they tried to fight their way into rebel-held eastern Ghouta.

Russia’s involvement in the Middle East has been under intense scrutiny at the UN in recent weeks. It has been repeatedly accused of obstructing resolutions that were intended to help civilians caught in conflict in both Syria and Yemen so as to shield its regional allies.

On Monday, the Russian ambassador vetoed a security council resolution that criticised Tehran for its failure to abide by UN sanctions on Yemen, after evidence emerged that its rockets and drones were being used by Houthi rebels.

An alternative draft was passed instead that made no mention of Iran’s role.