The U.N. envoy for Syria warned Wednesday that this is as "violent and worrying and dangerous" a moment as he has seen in four years, pointing to escalating violence on multiple fronts that is undermining prospects for peace and threatening regional stability.
Staffan de Mistura reiterated Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' appeal to those fighting and all concerned countries "to de-escalate immediately and unconditionally." And he especially urged the three countries that have brokered localized cease-fires — Russia and Iran, which back the government, and Turkey, which supports the opposition — "to use their influence to help reduce violence."
De Mistura spoke at a Security Council meeting and was followed by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, who traded accusations about responsibility for the violence and for blocking the path to peace.
Russia's air campaign in Syria, which began in September 2015, helped turn the tide of the civil war that began in 2011 in favor of President Bashar Assad.
In recent weeks, violence has flared across Syria and spilled across its borders with Turkey and Israel.
De Mistura said fighting over rebel-held Idlib and sustained government airstrikes across the northwest and against the besieged opposition-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta reportedly killed more than 1,000 civilians in the first week of February alone — "and strikes have continued to hit hospitals, schools and markets."
Haley warned that "we are not going to get to peace when the situation on the ground continues to escalate, with dire risks for the security of the entire region."
She accused Iran, a key Syrian ally, of sending fighters to every front of the conflict and launching a drone into Israeli territory last week in "an egregious and unprompted escalation."
President Bashar Assad's government "has become a front for Iran, Hezbollah and their allies" to advance their "irresponsible and dangerous agenda for the Middle East" — and to entrench themselves in Syria, she said.
Iran's U.N. Mission rejected Haley's "baseless allegation," accusing the U.S. government in a statement of responsibility for the growth of "terrorism" in the Middle East and calling Israel's "illegal and aggressive practices ... the primary source of instability and insecurity in the region."
Haley also demanded that Russia, a key Assad backer, take action.
Russia can change this behavior" and push the government to commit to seeking a real peace, she said. "Now is the time for Russia to use that leverage."
Nebenzia responded saying "Russia will not demand anything." But he requested the U.S. and its coalition partners to use their influence "to ensure that they, too, cease hostilities and refrain from further provocations and outbreaks of violence."
Later, he told reporters: "We are doing everything to prevent any major international confrontation."
Nebenzia also stressed that no country has delivered more than Russia "on the political process."
He pointed to Russia's work with the Syrian government and opposition on de-escalation zones and the "Syrian Congress of National Dialogue" held last month in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi where an agreement to draft a new constitution was announced.
Delegates to the congress agreed to form a constitutional committee under the United Nations' aegis, and de Mistura told the Security Council he has been consulting "intensively," including with the Syrian government, opposition and other governments, on establishing the committee and candidates for membership.
"I intend to strike while the iron is hot," he said, not just on the constitutional committee but on moving forward on the June 2012 Geneva agreement by key nations that lays out a roadmap to peace in Syria, including a transitional government, new constitution and elections.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told the council his government will not recognize any constitutional reform body formed outside the Russian-initiated Sochi framework, which appeared to rebuff de Mistura's efforts.
But Nebenzia suggested to reporters later that what Ja'afari meant was that the actual drafting of the constitution "will be Syrian-led and Syrian-owned" — a point that de Mistura also stressed to reporters.
De Mistura also stressed the urgent need for humanitarian access to nearly 3 million people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. He said Wednesday's first humanitarian convoy in months to a besieged area — Nashabiyah east of Damascus — provided a partial delivery of aid and food to 7,200 people, just a fraction of the needy.
Kuwait and Sweden have circulated a draft Security Council resolution calling for a 30-day humanitarian cease-fire to deliver desperately needed aid and evacuate the sick. Council experts are discussing it.
Nebenzia said Russia is willing to have a "cease-fire de-escalation immediately," but he said the current fighting "does not allow us to believe it can be done overnight."
"We are striving for consensus, and as soon as we can reach it then we will do it," he said.