Syrian, Russian actions beg for war crimes investigation - Kerry

Washington has intensified saber-rattling rhetoric toward Russia, with US Secretary of State Kerry calling for a “war crimes” probe of Moscow’s anti-terror operation in Syria. The State Department downplayed Kerry’s words, saying he spoke of potential “violations.”

“Russia and the regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals, medical facilities, children, women,” Kerry said after meeting with the French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Friday. “These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes." Kerry called the actions of the Syrian military and the Russian air force “beyond accidental” and “a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians."

Kerry prefaced his remarks about “war crimes” by claiming that the Syrian forces hit “another hospital” in Aleppo overnight, killing 20 people and wounding 100. There has been no confirmation of the attack, whether from government or rebel sources.

State Department spokesman John Kirby later attempted to clarify Kerry’s comments, saying that Washington believes there were certain “violations of international law” that “should be properly investigated.”

When asked if there is a difference in meaning between the definitions of “war crime” and “violation,” Kirby responded that he was not an “expert” on the “technical definitions.”

“We certainly believe that the violations we’ve seen and the strikes and the attacks and the manner in which they have been conducted merit and deserve an evaluation, a review, an investigation, call what you will, as potential war crimes,” Kirby said.

Syrian jets, backed by the Russian air force, are targeting militants in East Aleppo after jihadist groups in control of the enclave there repeatedly violated the cessation of hostilities, according to Moscow and Damascus.

UN estimates put the number of militants in East Aleppo between six and eight thousand, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, about half of whom belong to the terrorist organization Al-Nusra Front. Russia is prepared to urge the Syrian government to let them depart the city, Lavrov added.

READ MORE: Russia ready to support UN envoy’s proposal to allow Al Nusra to exit Aleppo with arms – Lavrov

UN’s envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, personally offered to escort the militants out.

“If you [Al-Nusra] did decide to leave, in dignity with your weapons, to Idlib or anywhere you wanted to go, I personally am ready, physically ready, to accompany you,” he said on Thursday.

Kerry’s words were an attempt to distract from Washington’s failure to implement the Syrian ceasefire, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Friday.

Kerry’s statement – this is propaganda. There are some very serious legal consequences behind this terminology, and I think that Kerry used all of these terms to inflame the situation,” Zakharova said.

“If it comes to war crimes, US representatives should start with Iraq. And then move to Libya, and of course to Yemen – find out what's there. I want to say that juggling these words is very dangerous, because there are indeed war crimes on the part of the American representatives,” Zakharova told Dozhd TV.

In an interview to RT, former UK counter-terrorism officer Charles Shoebridge said the US is actually not the country to “lecture" Russia on the war crimes issue. Washington "is hardly one to lecture on war crimes at the moment. It supplies arms freely to Israel, to Saudi Arabia, other countries committing war crimes. Certainly, in Saudi Arabia's case at the moment on a daily bases in places like Yemen," Shoebridge said.

However, the former counter-terrorism officer expressed hopes that Moscow will not let any provocations take place.

"We have to hope that Russia keeps a cool head. Lavrov and indeed Putin are known for that. They are not the type that stand, lecture and grandstand and posture in this way," he said.

Washington suspended bilateral contacts with Russia over the Syrian crisis on Monday, accusing Moscow of not doing enough to restrain the government in Damascus.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said that Russia had made every effort to preserve the September 9 ceasefire agreement, while repeatedly urging Washington to live up to its obligations and separate the so-called “moderate opposition” fighters from Al-Nusra and other terrorists.

Kerry’s remarks come as the Syrian Army made advances in the Sheikh Saeed district of Aleppo, on the southern side of the rebel-held enclave. Even as government bombardment has lessened, shelling from the rebel side killed 11 people in the government-held Al-Jamaliyeh neighborhood on Thursday.

Authorities in Damascus have said “there is no other option” but to continue to fight the rebels until they leave Aleppo.