With no party yet found responsible for the alleged airstrike on the humanitarian aid convoy west of Aleppo, which killed several Syrian Red Crescent volunteers, the US State Department was quick to vent its outrage, blaming Damascus and Moscow for the attack.
A joint UN and Syrian Red Crescent (SARC) 31-truck humanitarian convoy delivering aid was bombed in five alleged airstrikes while offloading supplies in the Syrian town of Urm al-Kubra. At least 18 vehicles were hit, according to the UN.
As result of the attack, the mission’s chief and several other workers suffered severe injuries, a witness told Reuters. The convoy was carrying humanitarian cargo to some 78,000 civilians stranded in the war-stricken town.
While no party has claimed responsibility for the attack, pro-rebel groups rushed to blame the incident on government forces, claiming it was either a Syrian or a Russian warplane that carried out the strike.
In a statement issued by the US State Department, spokesman John Kirby said the US was “outraged” at the attack, stopping short of blaming any country in particular, but adding that “the destination of this convoy was known to the Syrian regime and the Russian Federation and yet these aid workers were killed in their attempt to provide relief to the Syrian people.”
“The United States will raise this issue directly with Russia. Given the egregious violation of the Cessation of Hostilities we will reassess the future prospects for cooperation with Russia,” Kirby said.
There have been conflicting reports on the number of casualties. According to Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 14 volunteers from a Syrian branch of Red Crescent (SARC) fell victim to the attack.
For its part, the United Nations was unable to confirm an exact death toll, saying that the attack resulted in “many” people killed.
UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien denounced the reported airstrike as a “callous attack” for which there “can be no explanation or excuse” as the convoy was “clearly marked as humanitarian” with the information on its notification being provided to “all parties of the conflict.”
“Initial reports indicate that many people have been killed or seriously injured, including SARC volunteers, as a result of these sickening attacks,” O’Brien said in a statement Monday, adding that apart from the warehouse a health clinic has been also damaged.
O’Brien called for launching an “immediate, impartial and independent” probe into the incident, which, if proved to be a deliberate attack, could amount to the “violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.”
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has strongly condemned the attack on the convoy, which was “the outcome of a long process of permission and preparations to assist isolated civilians.”
“Our outrage at this attack is enormous,” de Mistura said in a statement emailed to Reuters by his spokesman in Geneva.
The attack comes as the militants from Jabhat-Al-Nusra have been pushing on the Syrian army positions in southwest Aleppo and residential areas on Monday, shelling them with tanks, missile systems and mortar fire. The large-scale offensive, targeting the Assad Academy in Aleppo, has inflicted damaged on the building and forced out the Russian Defense Ministry’s camera, monitoring the truce, out of operation.
Earlier, the Syrian government announced the end of the ceasefire, agreed upon by US and Russia in Geneva earlier this month, due to constant violations by the rebels who “did not adhere to any of the points of the agreement on a ceasefire.”
In the wake of the attack Washington and Moscow are going to convene an urgent meeting on Monday night to Tuesday to discuss the implications of the incident to the Syrian peace process.
“We are also going to be meeting with the Russians at high levels to try to get a sense from them about where they think this [Syrian ceasefire] can go from here,” an unnamed US official said, as cited by news agency Sputnik.
“What happened today has dealt a serious blow to our efforts to bring peace to Syria,” the source added.
Meanwhile, France has called on the ceasefire to be restored in full as soon as possible, while decrying the attack.
“France strongly condemns the destruction of a humanitarian convoy in Syria and the death of all the personnel in it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said, as cited by Reuters.
“This destruction illustrates the urgency of a ceasefire,” he stressed.
The attack adds further uncertainty over the prospects of the latest Russia-US brokered ceasefire deal, days after the US-led coalition bombed Syrian government forces’ positions near the city of Deir ez-Zor, killing 62 Syrian troops and injuring over 100. The airstrike, described by Russia’s Defense Ministry as “serious and blatant aggression” facilitated the advance of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) militants in the area.
Apart from the US forces, the UK, Australian and Danish militaries admitted their participation in the attack, mounted by two F-16 jet fighters and two A-10 support aircrafts.
While the coalition’s investigation in the attack continues, Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, said it was likely caused by wrong coordinates and is “a direct consequence of the stubborn unwillingness of the American side to coordinate with Russia in its actions against terrorist groups in Syria.”
While the attack on the SARC volunteers near Aleppo might cast doubt on the possibility of a long-standing ceasefire in Syria, the aid volunteers have long been calling on the additional protection for humanitarian workers.
Stephen Ryan, coordinator for Red Crescent and Red Cross said that dozens of the group’s volunteers have been killed since the onset of the protracted military conflict in Syria.
“Prior to tonight’s tragic news that are indicating that there have been a loss of life in this SARC camp near Aleppo already 53 volunteers previously had died …over last five years,” he told RT, adding that its challenging nature makes the aid worker’s job “possibly one of the most dangerous jobs in the world at that time.”
While the organization’s everyday efforts do not often come into spotlight, the volunteers have to regularly face the imminent danger of being killed.
“Each month SARC provides assistance to between 4.5 and 5 million people and oftentimes this goes unnoticed but each day Red Crescent volunteers are out there providing assistance, providing food relief, providing medical assistance, providing psyche social support,“ Ryan said.
Assessing the humanitarian situation in Aleppo, which has been on a forefront of the battle with jihadists in Syria, as “extremely difficult” in some heavily-stricken neighborhoods, he reiterated the crucial importance of securing access to people in “difficult-to-reach or besieged areas.”
Neither the Red Cross nor the Red Crescent will take sides or participate in speculation as to who is to blame for the atrocity, Ryan says.
“The Red Cross and Red Crescent have a history of over 150 years of not getting involved in the blame game, our primary focus has always been and will always be on providing of humanitarian assistance.”