UN inquiry stops short of directly blaming Russia over Idlib attacks

Bethan McKernan Middle East correspondent
Photograph: Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets/AP

A UN investigation has stopped short of directly calling Russia a perpetrator in attacks on hospitals and other humanitarian infrastructure in rebel-held areas of Syria, a move greeted with disappointment from rights groups.

A summary of a 185-page internal report submitted to the UN security council on Monday said that in five of seven cases studied – among them four medical sites, a school and a children’s centre – “the government of Syria and/or its allies had carried out the airstrike”, but it did not explicitly name Russia, Bashar al-Assad’s most important military and political ally.

The coordinates of all the sites had been registered as part of the UN’s deconfliction system and shared with Moscow and other warring parties in order to prevent attacks.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: “The refusal to explicitly name Russia as a responsible party working alongside the Syrian government … is deeply disappointing.”

War monitors and the health directorate of north-western Idlib province, Syria’s last rebel-held stronghold, say at least 70 healthcare facilities have been hit by regime and Russian bombing in the last 12 months. Last year the New York Times published an exhaustive investigation, notably including recordings of Russian pilots, that directly incriminated Russia in attacks on hospitals in rebel areas.

HRW’s director, Kenneth Roth, wrote on Twitter: “UN secretary general António Guterres gave an excessively narrow mandate to a board of inquiry into attacks on hospitals in Syria, and the inquiry now produces a mealy-mouthed report, all to avoid offending Russia, the prime offender along with Syria.”

In July last year the security council issued a rare formal diplomatic petition demanding Guterres open an investigation into airstrikes on medical facilities.

The move infuriated Moscow, which has repeatedly used international forums – such as its veto as a permanent member of the UN security council – to shield Assad from international action. Since intervening in the Syrian war on the regime’s behalf in 2015, Russia has repeatedly denied that its own aircraft target civilian sites.

Guterres attributed the small number of incidents examined in the new report to the absence of UN personnel on the ground and refusal of permission to visit the sites.

The commission looked at bombings carried out between April and July 2019 in Idlib and the surrounding countryside. One hospital was deselected for not meeting the investigation’s criteria, and a raid on a refugee camp was likely to have been carried out by an Islamist group, the report said.

The board of inquiry was established in September and its report was supposed to have been submitted by the end of 2019 but was delayed until March.

Western countries have been demanding for months that a summary of the report be published. Media reports suggest Russian diplomats pressured Guterres’s office not to release it.

The Syrian and Russian delegations to the UN did not immediately comment on the findings.