A former cabinet minister has likened Russian bombing in Syria to Nazi attacks in Spain in the 1930s ahead of an emergency Commons debate on the humanitarian situation in Aleppo.
Andrew Mitchell accused Russia of “shredding” international law and committing a war crime by attacking a UN relief convoy last month. He compared it to the destruction of the Basque city of Guernica by fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War.
Russia says it is targeting terrorists.
The northern city of Aleppo has become a key battleground in Syria’s bloody five-year civil war.
The UK government has strongly criticised Russia’s bombing of Syria, while French President Francois Hollande has suggested Russia could face war crimes charges over its actions in Aleppo. Mr Hollande also said he might refuse to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is due to visit France next week. Russia has denied carrying out the attack on the aid convoy.
Ahead of a three-hour Commons debate on the “unfolding humanitarian catastrophe”, Mr Mitchell, a former international development secretary, said: “The use of incendiary weapons, munitions such as bunker buster bombs and cluster bombs… the UN make clear that the systematic use of such indiscriminate weapons in densely populated areas amounts to a war crime. “We are witnessing events which match the behaviour of the Nazi regime in Guernica in Spain. Russia is shredding the international rules-based system of law.”
In 1937, the Spanish fascist dictator Francisco Franco allowed the ancient Basque capital of Guernica – which had held out against the advances made by his army since the beginning of the civil war the previous year – to be bombed by Germany’s air force. This is regarded as the first deliberate aerial bombing of a city in history. More than 1,600 people died, but Franco denied the raid had taken place. The events provoked international outrage and inspired the anti-war painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso.
Mr Mitchell, who served in the Army in his pre-parliamentary life, likened Russia’s actions in Syria to those of the Nazis in Spain, saying: “They are destroying the United Nations and its ability to act, in the same way the Germans and the Italians destroyed the League of Nations in the 1930s.” He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme the debate should give the UK government additional ideas on how to galvanise the international community to take action.
Mothers in Aleppo “want the fighting to stop”, he said, and “anything that any of us can do… we should be doing”.
MPs have not formally debated Syria for months, distracted from the bloodshed by Brexit. But on Tuesday, for three hours, they will discuss what more the British government – if anything – could do to protect civilians, increase access to aid and reduce the violence.
Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell compares the Russian attacks on Aleppo to the Nazi bombing of civilians in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. And he is urging the government to use its diplomatic clout to put more pressure on Moscow and deploy military assets to identify Russian planes bombing civilian targets. Western and other powers are beginning to discuss what they could do differently over Syria. But there will be no answers until a new US president is elected. And that might be too late.
The UN has warned that if nothing changes, eastern Aleppo will be destroyed by Christmas and thousands more lives lost. Mr Mitchell said no one wanted to see a firefight with Russia or shoot down a Russian plane, but the international community had an avowed responsibility to protect that must be exerted. If that meant confronting Russian airpower defensively on behalf of the innocent people on the ground, then so be it, he said, adding that the UK should explore with its allies how it would enforce a no fly-zone, as part of a “coalition of the willing”.
Boris Johnson will speak for the government during Tuesday’s debate – in what will be his first appearance at the dispatch box since becoming foreign secretary in July.
Last month Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK would “never intentionally strike or focus on Syrian forces”, after Britain confirmed it had taken part in air strikes that killed dozens of Syrian troops.
At least 62 Syrians were killed in the strikes, as the US said it might have accidentally hit a government position. Last week Russia vetoed a Franco-Spanish UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to the bombing. In a strongly worded statement issued on Monday, the Russian government rejected the UK’s criticism of its actions in Aleppo and questioned the UK’s own contribution to military and humanitarian efforts.
Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defence, suggested the UK and other Western countries had failed to check the territorial advances of so-called Islamic State and affiliates of al-Qaeda, while his country’s forces had been “achieving results”. “Where was Great Britain when ISIS almost reached the shores of the Mediterranean, almost turning Syria into a terrorist caliphate – in the same way that happened in Libya thanks to your efforts?” he asked.