OTTAWA – Canada and Russia traded barbs at the United Nations on Thursday as Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion led calls for an end to the bloody conflict in Syria.
The exchange came during a special session of the UN General Assembly, organized by Canada and supported by more than 70 countries, in which Canada hoped to ratchet up pressure on Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad to end the five-year-old war.
Dion blasted the Security Council’s failure to end the conflict before turning his sights towards Russia and Assad. The two have a responsibility to protect civilians, he warned, before calling them “belligerents” to the conflict.
Dion called for an immediate end to airstrikes in the city of Aleppo, where Russian and Syrian government forces have conducted an unprecedented number of airstrikes in recent weeks. And he brushed aside a “pause” in the bombing instituted by Russia earlier this week.
“A short humanitarian pause, announced unilaterally, without notice and without clear parameters, does not allow the necessary aid,” said Dion.
About 250,000 people are trapped in rebel-held parts of the city, which aid convoys have not been able to reach since July. UN officials reported that water and food supplies are running dangerously low and half of those caught in the crossfire are children.
But Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, showed no signs of backing down. Instead, he repeated past assertions that Russian and Syrian forces were fighting terrorist groups, some of which have been trained and equipped by the U.S.
Churkin went on to note that Dion had made no mention of either the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or other terrorist groups, and he appeared to question if Canada was committed to fighting such elements.
Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari also attacked Canada, accusing it of violating his country’s sovereignty by deploying military forces inside Syria without permission.
Canadian fighter jets conducted several bombing missions against ISIL inside Syria between March 2015 and February 2016. While those warplanes have since been withdrawn, Canada still has two surveillance planes and an air-to-air refuelling aircraft operating in Syrian and Iraqi airspace.
But Dion was far from the only one to lament the Security Council’s failure to intervene or criticize Russia and the Syrian government. Diplomats from around the world echoed his concerns, as well as the idea of holding an emergency session of the General Assembly to sidestep the Security Council.
In an interview before the session, Dion said Canada and other countries were expressing their “frustration” with the current situation. And while the session itself will likely turn out to be largely symbolic, “we need to try everything.”
“I think it will add to the pressure for action,” he said. “Because you will have many countries saying the same thing, accentuating the sense that inaction is unacceptable.”
Diplomats were particularly critical of Russia’s decision to veto a Security Council resolution on Oct. 8 that would have demanded an end to airstrikes and other military flights over Aleppo.
In their briefings, UN officials painted a dire picture of the situation in Aleppo. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said he had “few words left to describe the Syrian tragedy.”
Health care facilities have been “mercilessly pummelled” and “hunger has been used as a weapon,” Ban said.