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UN’s 30-day cease-fire has yet to take effect in war-torn Syria

Syrian civilians search for survivors in the eastern

Syrian civilians search for survivors in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2018. Credit: AFP/Getty Images / HAMZA AL-AJWEH

UNITED NATIONS — As the war in Syria approaches the seven-year mark in March, ambassadors at the UN on Wednesday sparred over why a 30-day cease-fire that the Security Council adopted on Saturday had yet to take effect.

“More bombing, more fighting, more death, more destruction,” UN humanitarian affairs chief Mark Lowcock said at a meeting. “More maiming of women and children. More hunger. More misery. More, in other words, of the same.”

Few in the chamber denied elements of his statement that war-torn Syria, especially in eastern Ghouta, is as much a war zone as it was when the Security Council on Saturday unanimously passed Resolution 2401, the measure that was to bring a brief end to the fighting so that humanitarian supplies could be delivered.

Instead, the experts said, air attacks, including barrel bombs, have rained on Syrian soil and there were reports of the use of chlorine gas on civilians.

“When will your resolution be implemented?” Lowcock said, ending a presentation with grim statistics: More than 580 people since Feb. 18 have been killed by air and ground-based strikes in eastern Ghouta and more than 1,000 people have been injured.

The problems extend beyond eastern Ghouta, Lowcock said, adding that deliveries of aid across conflict lines to millions of people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas throughout Syria have “totally collapsed.”

“Unless this changes,” he declared, “we will soon see even more people dying from starvation and disease than from the bombing and the shelling.”

But Russia and the United States took opposing sides in their responses to the reports by Lowcock and UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

Kelley Currie, the U.S. ambassador for economic and social affairs, denounced Russia’s call for a daily five-hour pause, calling it “cynical, callous, and in flagrant defiance of the demands” of the resolution that requires a halt to the fighting “for at least 30 days — every day, all day.”

She added, “Russia does not get to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the resolution they negotiated and they sat here and voted for.”

But Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the five-hour pause, a window in which humanitarian supplies could be delivered by the UN and other aid groups, was a merely practical device that could transition to a longer and sustained cease-fire.

“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, blaming militants for using pauses in military operations on Tuesday and Wednesday to attack.

Feltman acknowledged that Resolution 2401 did not apply to operations against militant groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaida and al-Nusra Front, which are trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But he said “there must be a frank assessment of what this means in relation to the humanitarian tragedy we are witnessing in eastern Ghouta.”

He added that the Syrian government’s imperative to wipe out terrorist actors, as was mentioned by Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari in adopting the resolution on Saturday, cannot override its obligations to wage war with minimal impact on civilians.

“The scale of the government’s indiscriminate military attacks against eastern Ghouta, an area with a civilian population of 400,000, cannot be justified on the basis of targeting Jabhat al-Nusra fighters,” Feltman told the Security Council. “Efforts to combat terrorism do not supersede obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law.”

With AP

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