At the first summit with President Vladimir Putin since he ordered Russian forces into Syria, world leaders Sunday said little about Russia’s controversial war tactics, which include bombing hospitals, using cluster bombs against civilians and a scorched earth policy that’s driven 200,000 people from their homes.
According to a U.N. report citing local humanitarian agencies, Russian and Syrian government bombing displaced at least 90,000 civilians from south of Aleppo in the past week alone, on top of 120,000 forced from their homes or temporary housing in Idlib in the period since Russian intervention began Sept. 30.
Physicians for Human Rights, a respected U.S. non-governmental organization, charged Sunday that Russia had attacked 10 Syrian health care facilities in October, in addition to six attacks by Syrian government forces. It said there had been 329 attacks on medical facilities since March 2011, calling them “war crimes and crimes against humanity” that “the international community has failed to stop.”
But other than remarks by European Council President Donald Tusk, the summit discussion on Syria focused on diplomacy and specifically, international efforts to stop the war during talks in Vienna Friday and Saturday.
Tusk said Russian operations have been targeting the moderate Syrian opposition and would “only result in a new wave of refugees. And we have some signals that in fact it’s started.”
In an animated 35-minute conversation on the sidelines of the summit Sunday afternoon, Obama and Putin agreed that diplomatic progress had been made in Vienna. They referred to a joint call by the U.S., Russia and 18 other participants for a nationwide cease-fire, a transitional governmental authority, the drafting of a new constitution and new elections in Syria.
Physicians for Human Rights, a respected U.S. non-governmental organization, charged Sunday that Russia had attacked 10 Syrian health care facilities in October.
G20 leaders – whose summit is ordinarily devoted to world economic issues – continued discussing Syria and the international battle against Islamic State extremists over dinner Sunday night. But there was no sign that the allegations of Russian war crimes ever came up.
The White House said Obama’s discussion with Putin was “constructive” and centered on efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict, “an imperative made all the more urgent” by Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, for which the Islamic State took credit.
French President Francois Hollande did not attend the summit at this Turkish seaside resort but stayed in Paris to discuss France’s response to the attacks on civilians in bars, restaurants and a rock concert.
The first military response was announced late Friday, with the french Defense Ministry saying its air force had conducted massive bombardments against Islamic State targets in Raqqa, the group’s capital in eastern Syria.
U.S. officials are hoping that France, which has undertaken airstrikes against Islamic State from bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates and is sending an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf region, will play a yet more active role in future operations.
But even as the international community focused on the terror acts of Islamic extremists, major powers stayed silent about the violence inflicted on Syrian civilians in the combined air and ground assault carried out by Syrian and Russian forces.
Syrian ground forces, joined by hundreds of Iranian backed fighters, captured Al Hader, a key opposition-held town on Thursday, and then captured three other towns, sending thousands of families in flight in every vehicle available, donkey carts or on foot.
In Reyhanli, a Turkish border town close to Aleppo, volunteers who ferry wounded Syrians to Turkish hospitals reported as many as 100 civilians arriving daily for the past weeks with shrapnel wounds or lost limbs following Russian and Syrian airstrikes.
Prior to Thursday’s capture of Hader and nearby villages, many had fled from Khan Toman, a town of more than 10,000, which was filled with displaced civilians already displaced from Aleppo or other towns in the region.
“Most people die in Syria, but at least 10 a day die after they are taken to Turkish hospitals,” Yusuf al Halabie, 50, a volunteer, told a McClatchy reporter Thursday. Arriving refugees reported that the Russian air force was targeting water tanks, electricity stations and other basic services.
Commanders and spokesmen for moderate opposition groups said the rebels had initially repelled the combined Russian-Syrian offensive, destroying scores of armored vehicles in the initial days in Hama and Aleppo provinces, with the help of U.S. TOW anti-tank missiles.
But they said the Russians changed tactics, and shortly after Nov. 1 started sending in fleets of aircraft, dropping cluster bombs – a single one of which contains hundreds of small bomblets.
“It is a very poor area, and people have been living on next to nothing. There are no services,” said Awad al Ali, the acting defense minister for the Syrian opposition coalition, the leading opposition political grouping, who is from that area.
Al Ali, a former top police official who held the rank of general, said the Syrian government’s gains in the Aleppo countryside “was not a strategic achievement, but is being done just to show they are advancing.” But the only result is “civilian casualties and more people displaced,” he said in an interview in Gaziantep, Turkey, Friday.
Special correspondent Zakaria Zakaria contributed from Reyhanli and Gaziantep.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc