Margaret Besheer - VOA News
UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations' special envoy for Syria warned Wednesday that an escalation of fighting in the southwestern part of the country risks turning into another Aleppo or eastern Ghouta – two towns that were devastated by government bombings and siege.
“We see a full-scale ground offensive and aerial bombardment, as well as exchanges of fire from both sides,” Staffan de Mistura told a meeting of the Security Council of strikes on the southern Dara’a governorate.
Speaking of the bloody Syrian government operation against rebel-held districts of Aleppo at the end of 2016 and a similar operation against eastern Ghouta earlier this year, the special envoy said the Security Council could not allow such a repeat of civilian suffering, “and yet I see things moving in this direction,” he warned.
“If there is a full-scale battle to the end, it could be like Aleppo and eastern Ghouta combined together, in terms of populations in the areas affected,” de Mistura added.
The U.N. says some 50,000 people have been displaced from Dara’a governorate since the escalation began just over a week ago. Most of those fleeing are moving toward the Jordanian border. Dara’a is in a so-called “de-escalation zone” and it had been mostly quiet for nearly a year.
"The full-scale offensive that we now see is in complete contravention of what, I think, everyone in the council wants to see, and indeed what we had demanded — namely a de-escalation and full commitment and engagement in the political process,” said Sweden’s U.N. ambassador Olof Skoog.
The Syrian military, backed by Russia, carried out a week of intensive bombings on the nearby countryside and moved toward the city on Tuesday. Syrian state media reported Wednesday the army is carrying out “intensive strikes” targeting al-Nusra terrorists in the southeastern part of the city, intended to cut off their “movements and supply routes.”
At the United Nations, Syrian ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari defended the offensive, saying it is to combat terrorist groups on its own territory.
“When the Syrian army combats terrorism in its south, can we call this an aggression?” he said in response to characterizations of the operation by other council diplomats.
The U.N.’s director of aid operations, John Ging, said the developments in Dara’a are “alarming.”
“A number of villages, either impacted or fearful of proximity to the fighting have been almost abandoned,” he said. He cited the World Food Program, warning that the numbers of displaced could “nearly double” if the fighting continues to escalate.
Despite the violence, Ging said the U.N. and its partners continue to provide food and other assistance to more than 400,000 people in southern Syria through cross-border convoys from Jordan. But he warned that operations could be interrupted if fighting escalates.