UN envoy warns Aleppo faces destruction by end of the year
The UN envoy for Syria has called on militant fighters to leave Aleppo and for the Syrian and Russian governments to end their bombing campaign against rebel-held areas of the city, warning that otherwise the city will be "destroyed" by the end of the year with the deaths of thousands more civilians.
Staffan de Mistura called on an estimated 900 fighters from Fatah al-Sham Front to leave the rebel-held east of the city. The group was previously known as Nusra Front and changed its name after cutting ties with al-Qaida, but the UN still considers it a terrorist organisation.
Demonstrating dramatic flair, Mr de Mistura entreated both sides to "look at my eyes" before offering to "personally" escort the fighters to a refuge of their choosing, provided they agree to lay down their arms.
He also urged Syrian and Russian forces to halt their aerial bombardment of rebel areas, which has killed hundreds of people in the city in the last two weeks.
Mr de Mistura acknowledged that the Nusra fighters would "need some guarantees" before an evacuation to another rebel-held part of the country, such as Idlib, but said such guarantees would have to come from the government. "I cannot guarantee more than my own personality and body, frankly," he said.
He called for the local administration in opposition-held eastern neighbourhoods to remain in place after Fatah al-Sham leaves, with the UN establishing a presence there to bring humanitarian supplies to the besieged population.
His proposals marked the first major initiative by the UN to help find a way out of the Syria crisis after the United States, citing in part the Aleppo onslaught, suspended its joint effort with Russia to stop the fighting. Those two powers had led the diplomatic push until now.
Mr de Mistura's appeal to Fatal al-Sham Front was all the more poignant because the United Nations does not communicate directly with the group because it is on its terrorism blacklist.
He drew parallels between Aleppo and previous mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda, insisting that the UN would not stop seeking a resolution to Syria's five-and-a-half-year war.
"The bottom line is: In a maximum of two months - two-and-a-half months - the city of eastern Aleppo at this rate may be totally destroyed... and thousands of Syrians, not terrorists, will be killed," he said.
Having last month told the UN Security Council that half the fighters in Aleppo were Fatah al-Sham militants, Mr de Mistura revised the estimate down to 900 fighters, among a rebel combatant population of 8,000 and a civilian population of a quarter of a million.
This backtracking followed a BBC interview last week in which Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said 50% of the opposition in Aleppo were from Nusra Front, "as confirmed by the United Nations", according to a transcript posted on Russian diplomatic websites.