Russian-backed regime offensives in northern Syria continued on Thursday as Moscow and Washington bickered over proposed ceasefires, and reports emerged that aid meant for besieged communities may be being diverted by the government.
Government troops and allied militias, aided by hundreds of Russian airstrikes, have made significant gains this month in the governorate of Aleppo, and now threaten to completely surround its capital city. In a statement, the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Thursday that more than 50,000 civilians had already been displaced from Aleppo, and another 300,000 risk falling under siege. Tens of thousand have fled to the Turkish border, where authorities say they cannot take another massive wave of displacement.
Citing the growing number of Syrians living in besiege areas with little to no food supply, High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein called the unfolding situation across the country "grotesque."
Peace talks in Geneva meant to involve representatives of the regime and rebel factions let out last week prior to any negotiations. The opposition said it was impossible to consider proposals while Russian air strikes and regime attacks continued — a line repeated following the talks' collapse by their Western backers, including the US and France.
Though the UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has set a tentative date of February 25 for the resumption of negotiations in Geneva, there is little indication that the opposition will consider doing so as it continues to reel on the battlefield. Meanwhile, in Munich, members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) — which includes among its ranks the US, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — convened ahead of their own discussions.
On Thursday, multiple outlets, including the Associated Press and Reuters cited US officials who said Russia had proposed a March 1 ceasefire. The US says that such a date would likely be too late for opposition forces in Aleppo and elsewhere, and have demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities. On Thursday, Reuters cited a Western diplomat who said that Kerry wanted "all or nothing" from the regime and Russians. With the upper hand, Moscow does not appear inclined to give any ground — either in Syria or Munich.
In its briefing, OHCHR referred to the plight of some 35,000 people in Moadamiya, a town on the outskirts of Damascus that has been under a complete siege by government forces since December. Residents, said OHCHR, have "been enduring intense shelling and aerial attacks, and a dramatic deterioration of their living conditions, with food prices rising sharply and no infant-formula milk available."
"While some food was delivered to the pro-Government eastern side of town, at least six civilians, including five children, died directly as a result of malnutrition, and more than 25 children under the age of two are said to be suffering from malnutrition and related health problems," said OHCHR.
The human rights office was referencing a joint delivery of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which took place on February 3. In a statement released the following day, ICRC said teams were "given access to the town," and referenced thousands of people who "waited for hours on the edge of the buffer-zone separating the warring parties, where the food deliveries were made."
The OHCHR statement appeared to conflict with that of ICRC, and residents inside the besieged areas of Moadamiya told VICE News that they had not in fact received food from the aid shipment.
"What happened was that ICRC brought two trucks of medicine into the city and Assad's militias captured some of the medicine," said one resident who did not wish to be named for fear or reprisal. "They distributed 2000 food parcels to the people… [in the] eastern neighborhood, whose residents are Assad supporters." Those in besieged areas of the Moadamiya, said the resident, had not received food or medicine since December 25, and many were subsisting on herbs, olives, and on occasion, soup.
ICRC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.