In a startlingly dramatic appeal to both sides in Syria’s brutal civil war, the United Nations’ special envoy for Syria offered to personally escort up to 1,000 al-Qaeda-linked fighters out of Aleppo to prevent Russian and Syrian forces from razing the city to the ground.
The appeal from Staffan de Mistura comes as Russian and Syrian government forces relentlessly bomb the war-shattered city, where an estimated 275,000 people — including 100,000 children — have been cut off from the outside world for months. The latest Western-drafted ceasefire agreement collapsed in acrimony last week.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers claim that their airstrikes on rebel-held areas of the city are targeting "terrorists" with the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. On Thursday, Assad even offered to guarantee the safety of any rebels willing to lay down their weapons and leave the city.
So de Mistura basically told both sides to put their money where their mouths are.
To Assad and Russia, he sent this message:
I would then like to ask the Russian authorities and the government of Syria: Please look at my eyes too, and the eyes of the world and of the public opinion. Are you really ready to continue this type of level of fighting, using that type of weapons, and de facto destroy the whole eastern city of Aleppo, ancient city of Aleppo, with its own 275,000 people, for the sake of eliminating 1,000 — 1,000 — al-Nusra fighters? Or are you rather ready to announce an immediate and total aerial bombing halt if al-Nusra leaves?
For the Nusra fighters, he had this message:
We don’t talk to each other. You know it, we know it. But can you please look at my eyes, and those of the Aleppo people, of the 275,000 civilians that are there where you are, and confidently tell those 275,000 people ... of your refusal to leave the city? Because 1,000 of you are deciding on the destiny of 275,000 civilians ... And if you did decide to leave, in dignity and with your weapons, to Idlib or anywhere you wanted to go, I personally am ready, physically, to accompany you.
He’s saying to the Nusra fighters: If you really care about the lives of the Syrian people in eastern Aleppo, as you claim, prove it — save their lives by leaving the city. I’ll even let you keep your weapons and dignity. If you’re serious, then let’s do this.
To be clear, it’s not that Assad is actually going to let the Nusra fighters leave, because then he’d have no excuse to keep bombing the city. You see, he’s not actually engaged in some noble counterterrorism mission here. He’s bombing the hell out of all the rebels — regardless of whether they’ve ever been associated with al-Qaeda or ISIS or any other group of that sort.
Anyone who opposes his government is fair game. Oh, and so are humanitarian aid workers, doctors, and anyone else providing care for the rebels, even if they happen to be neutral and willing to provide care to his forces, too.
But that’s the entire point of de Mistura’s statement: It exposes the lie. Assad isn’t going to stop bombing Aleppo if 900 Nusra guys leave, because that’s not why he’s bombing Aleppo in the first place. Assad knows it, Russia knows it, and de Mistura — who has been fruitlessly negotiating with Moscow and Damascus for more than a year — knows it. That’s why he’s calling out the lie. Publicly.
Critics always say that the UN doesn’t ever really do anything to stop wars — all it ever does is issue flaccid statements of condemnation. But sometimes, even statements can be powerful.