Can UN monitors help protect Aleppo evacuees?

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People who fled the Shi'ite Muslim villages of al-Foua and Kefraya arrive in government controlled Jibreen area in Aleppo, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on December 19, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. - RTX2VPCM

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JUDY WOODRUFF: The United Nations Security Council demanded that the Syrian government and other interested parties allow the U.N. to have unhindered access to Aleppo, so that monitors can watch those trying to flee that war-ravaged city.

It was a welcome sight for thousands of Syrians trapped in Eastern Aleppo, waiting in the cold. Evacuations resumed overnight, after days of delays, under terms of a fragile cease-fire.

MAN (through translator): We were very hungry. God will take revenge on our behalf. Hopefully, we will return to Aleppo.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Forty-seven children trapped in an orphanage were among those rescued, but the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, reported some were in critical condition.

The evacuees were being ferried to Idlib province, widely expected to be the next front in the government’s offensive. At the same time, buses evacuated civilians from two Shiite villages in Idlib besieged by rebels.

The Syrian army and its allies demanded that evacuation in exchange for letting thousands of civilians and rebel fighters leave Eastern Aleppo. Many of the evacuees were taken first to the rebel-held town of al-Rashideen, west of Aleppo. They received much-needed food, water and humanitarian aid, and, by nightfall, they huddled around fires to stay warm, and recounted the horror they left behind.

MAHMOUD ABU MOHAMMAD, Evacuee (through translator): We left Aleppo to escape the relentless shelling. All the houses were damaged. Not a single one remained undamaged. We left because of the heavy airstrikes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late in the day, Turkish officials estimated some 20,000 people had been bussed out of Eastern Aleppo so far.

For more on what comes next for Aleppo’s evacuated civilians and what U.N. monitors will be able to do, I’m joined by former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. He’s now CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

David Miliband, welcome. I think it’s pretty self-evident, but why are these monitors necessary?

DAVID MILIBAND, Former British Foreign Secretary: The simple reason for these monitors is that Aleppo has not just been a site of terrible death and destruction over the last few months. It’s also been the site of the destruction of basic norms of international humanitarian law, not just the besiegement or the randomized bombings of civilian centers, including a hospital supported by the International Rescue Committee, but also door-to-door, cold-blooded murder by militias working their way through the city.

And I think it’s very important that there are people on the ground who can, by bearing witness or threatening to bear witness to what’s happening, try to put a stop to it.

Everything that we’re seeing and hearing from people who have fled the city is that the fear levels are at terrifying levels.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But can they put a stop to it by monitoring?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think that the monitoring on its own is only part of the answer.

Obviously, there’s got to be a decision from the Syrian government, and their Russian backers, and the Hezbollah militias that have been working their way through the city, about what they’re going to do next. Obviously, the Russians voted for this resolution in the Security Council today. Some people were surprised by that.

And if it does mean a halt to the terrible scenes that we have seen over the last week inside Aleppo, that’s obviously a step forward. The people that we’re meeting 20 kilometers to the west of Aleppo in the governorate of Idlib are concerned that they’re moving from one killing zone into another, because obviously the great fear is that the tactics that have been used in Aleppo are now deployed in Idlib, which is 1.9 million people across the whole governorate.

The bombing, the murder, the great danger is that that flows with the people to the west.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you about that, but when it comes to Aleppo, is it believed, is it understood that these monitors are going to be in a position to stop whatever indiscriminate killing or other terrible things are happening to these people as they leave?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, at best, they can bear witness to it. They’re obviously not in a position to intervene militarily.

It’s not a U.N. peacekeeping force that has been deployed as a result of this resolution today. It’s a group of monitors who are unarmed and who are there to monitor the conduct of the security and other forces and report on it.

Now, it is right and better for there to be some degree of international presence, but, obviously, that is cold comfort to very, very scared residents of Aleppo who have been the subject of this brutal assault not just over the last few weeks, but over the last few years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, to the point you were making a moment ago, David Miliband, the place where these evacuees are going, Idlib province, as we reported, is expected to be the next front in the government’s focus.

Why are they any safer there than they were in Aleppo?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I think that the words of the people who are fleeing tell it all. They say, we had to get out of hell.

And they don’t know here — whether the place they’re going to is going to be any better, but there is a chance that it might. Idlib has a different composition, population composition, and a different group of rebel fighters who are dominant there.

It’s an area that combines a large government with Idlib City, which is a confined urban area like Aleppo. It’s going to be a much tougher military effort, I think, on the part of the Syrian and the Russian forces.

And the great plea — and I’m afraid it is only a plea from the international community at the moment — is that the tactics of bombardment, besiegement and then door-to-door murder are not deployed in Idlib.

And in the absence of international military support, then it can only be a diplomatic plea that the way this war takes its next turn is going to be critical for whether any stability comes back to Syria in the future.

You reported yourselves that ISIS have been resurgent in taking Palmyra.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

DAVID MILIBAND: And we know from history that the way wars are concluded is absolutely the key to whether or not there is any peace to be kept.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I guess my question is, is there an expectation that what these monitors are doing in Aleppo could — they could just be moved next to Idlib to prevent the same kind of thing from happening there and then onto the next place where the government is moving in?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, the terrible truth of the last few weeks is that there has been plenty on social media and elsewhere explaining what’s been going on in Aleppo, but it’s not been possible to rally any kind of sufficient diplomatic, political or other pressure on those taking part in these activities to prevent the kind of horrific scenes that you broadcast last week and that are feared in the future.

This is now a real test of whether or not the Russians and their Iranian backers are serious about winning a sustainable peace in Syria, whether they are serious about taking on some of the rebel elements who are affiliated with al-Qaida, or whether this is simply a pretense and a fig leaf for a wider attempt to drive large sections of the Syrian population out of their homes as part of a bloody attempt to restore order.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, do you believe they are serious, based on what you know?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I have had — over the last five years of this conflict, the International Rescue Committee has had between 1,200 and 2,500 local staff on the ground through this.

And it has been the most appalling descent into hell for all of the people who work for us. All of the norms under which international humanitarian organizations work have been violated. Never did I think we would see the day of U.N. convoys being bombed. And never did I think we would go back to the days when there seemed to be no accountability for the most grotesque abuses of human rights. So, I cannot — of even human life, never mind human rights.

So, for me to sit here comfortably and tell you I’m confident about the future would be quite wrong. This is a desperate situation in Syria. I have got my own staff in the front line. And we’re desperate for the kind of coordinated and impactful political and diplomatic pressure that can ease some of the plight of the civilians and allow us to get on with our work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Miliband, the CEO of the International Rescue Committee, we thank you.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you very much.

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