Russian diplomats on Friday fought back against accusations that Moscow's stepped up bombing campaign on opposition positions in northern Syria helped kill peace talks this week in Geneva, even as tens of thousands of Syrians fled Aleppo towards the border with Turkey in the face of regime advances.
The city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, is now nearly surrounded by regime forces and allied militias. Opposition groups described the Russian aerial assault of recent days, which involved hundreds of sorties, as the strongest yet in Moscow's bombing campaign, and a key factor in prying areas around Aleppo from the grips of anti-government armed factions.
Amid this week's fighting, regime forces were able to cut off a vital supply line to Turkey, raising the spectre of a full siege of the city of Aleppo. Already, the UN reported that 20,000 people were massed at the border with Turkey, while the government in Ankara said that tens of thousands more were headed towards the frontier.
The Russian-aided offensive in Aleppo was condemned by opposition representatives gathered in Geneva for what were supposed to be UN-brokered negotiations. Though the UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura planned merely to facilitate "proximity" talks — with staff ushering notes from one room to another — even that never transpired. Instead, he was forced to announce a "temporary pause" on Wednesday, prior to any substantive negotiations.
On Friday, Russia's UN ambassador Vitali Churkin told reporters in New York that blaming Russia for the failure of talks was "in bad taste."
"This is not a good time for recriminations," Churkin said outside the Security Council before it met on Syria's humanitarian situation. During that session, de Mistura briefed the council by video conference, but diplomats said he refrained, as he has repeatedly, from directly blaming one side or the other for the demise of the Geneva talks.
"Staffan de Mistura was at his diplomatic best," Churkin said at a press stakeout afterwards. "There was no reference to Russian airstrikes."
Though de Mistura has been hesitant to name names, his boss, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon alluded to the Aleppo offensive at a donor conference for Syria in London on Thursday.
"It is deeply disturbing that the initial steps of the talks have been undermined by the continuous lack of sufficient humanitarian access and by a sudden increase of aerial bombings and military activities within Syria," said Ban.
France's UN ambassador Francois Delattre also spoke after the council session on Friday, and blasted the government of Bashar al-Assad and Russia.
"On the one hand, the Syrian regime claims to discuss peace in Geneva, and on the other hand, it intensifies its military offensive against opposition groups with which it is supposed to discuss, and imposes on the city of Aleppo an unprecedented torrent of fire," said Delattre. "The Syrian regime with the support of Russia are responsible for the situation as it is and for the fact that the opposition simply can simply not negotiate with… a gun to their head."
Asked about Churkin's remarks, the UK's ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft said of his Russian counterpart, "he needs to look in the mirror and understand where the responsibility lies… it's about the aerial bombardment and lack of humanitarian access — and we know who is doing that."
Churkin meanwhile blamed the opposition, which he said "did not really come to negotiate [in Geneva], they came to look for a pretext to walk out of negotiations." Russia, he added, could not stop bombings "unilaterally."
"What about the terrorist and opposition groups, are they going to stop too?" said Churkin.
Churkin went so far as to highlight "humanitarian objectives" that the regime's advance had achieved, evidently referencing the towns of Nubol and Zahra, which were freed from opposition sieges this week. Government-allied forces and militias, including Hezbollah, are responsible for besieging hundreds of thousands of Syrians across the country.
While he said Russia was "upset" that the Geneva talks had let out, Churkin said Moscow was "preparing some ideas on how to move things forward" to be delivered to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) when it meets in Munich on February 11. The ISSG, which includes the powerful backers of Syria's warring parties, including the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered a plan of action in November which envisioned a nationwide ceasefire and steps towards transitional governance. In December, the Security Council endorsed the ISSG's plan, and the Geneva talks were seen as the first opportunity to put it into action.