The U.S. Is Threatening to Cut Off Talks With Russia Over Aleppo

Syrian airstrikes damaged two hospitals—part of the intensified, and indiscriminate, bombardment of the rebel-held part of the city.

White Helmets sift through the rubble after an airstrike hits the rebel-held al-Shaar neighbourhood in Aleppo, Syria. 
White Helmets sift through the rubble after an airstrike hits the rebel-held al-Shaar neighbourhood in Aleppo, Syria.  (Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters )

NEWS BRIEF The U.S. threatened to cut off talks with Russia Wednesday after intensified airstrikes in eastern Aleppo took out two of the area’s largest hospitals. The warning follows the Syrian government’s intensified campaign—backed by Russian military power—to wrest eastern Aleppo from the hands of rebel forces, which, if successful, will mark a significant turning point in the country’s five-year civil war.

John Kirby, the U.S. State Department spokesman, said in a statement that John Kerry, the American secretary of state, spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on the telephone warning him that the continued bombardment of Aleppo, which has resulted in a high civilian toll, would result in talks being suspended.

“The Secretary stressed that the burden remains on Russia to stop this assault and allow humanitarian access to Aleppo and other areas in need,” Kirby said. “He informed the Foreign Minister that the United States is making preparations to suspend U.S.-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria—including on the establishment of the Joint Implementation Center—unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo and restore the cessation of hostilities.”

Talks between Kerry and Lavrov succeeded earlier this month in negotiating a cease-fire between Syrian government troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces. That cease-fire collapsed after a week, following which a strike—blamed by independent observers on Syria and Russia—hit a humanitarian aid convoy, killing 20 people. Since then, Kerry and Lavrov have met face-to-face and spoken to implement another truce to allow the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the beleaguered rebel-held parts of Aleppo.

The diplomatic development comes as two hospitals run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Aleppo were bombed.

The two hospitals had seen an increase in the number of patients since the collapse of the U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire. The hospitals received more than 270 dead and more than 800 wounded, according to MSF. The international aid organization says all eight remaining hospitals in eastern Aleppo have been damaged. Reuters reports 30 doctors are believed to remain in the eastern part of the city where 250,000 people remain.

“Many attacks are brushed off as mistakes committed in the fog of war,” Joanne Liu, MSF’s president, told the UN Security Council on Wednesday. “We reject the word ‘mistake.’”

Attacks against medical centers and humanitarian relief workers in Syria are hardly new. Last week, the UN temporarily suspended aid deliveries after the deadly bombing of the humanitarian convoy. The Syrian Civil Defense, a group of volunteer rescuers known commonly as the White Helmets, reported three of its four centers were also targeted in recent airstrikes.

Critics have described targeting of humanitarian convoys and medical facilities in Aleppo as war crimes. And while the United States and its allies have blamed Russia and Assad regime for such acts, both Moscow and Damascus have denied those claims.

While the international community continues to monitor the carnage in Aleppo, which has faced some of the most intense fighting since the civil war first began, the Syrian government has continued its attempts to promote a sense of normalcy in regime-controlled areas of the country. Earlier this month, the Syrian Tourism Ministry released a video inviting tourists to visit the country’s scenic beaches, without once mentioning the ongoing civil war. More recently, Syria’s state news agency tweeted a video depicting Aleppo’s  “thriving nightlife.”

Though the video, presumably filmed in the western part of the city that is government-controlled, provides a stark contrast to the carnage taking place mere miles away, the picturesque scenes of a city ravaged by a civil war may not be so far fetched. As the Washington Post’s Loveday Morris reported following a trip to government-controlled Aleppo in March:
War brings death and discomfort, but life continues here with a surprising degree of normality.

It’s a far cry from the images of Aleppo the world has seen during Syria’s war: the rubble-filled streets, the carcasses of buildings, lifeless bodies being dragged out of piles of detritus after airstrikes. But that is the rebel-held side.

Still, drone footage of eastern Aleppo taken after the recent increase in bombings paints a different picture: