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Boris Johnson rejects MPs' calls for no-fly zone over Syria

British foreign secretary says Russia risks becoming 'pariah nation' over role in destruction of Aleppo and says UK is 'doing what we can'
Rescue workers search for survivors amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following an air strike in rebel-held Aleppo on 4 October (AFP)

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Tuesday said that Russia risked becoming a "pariah nation" over its bombing of Aleppo but rejected calls from MPs for the UK to push for a no-fly zone to stop the air strikes killing civilians in besieged rebel-held areas of the Syrian city.

Earlier in the emergency debate on Syria, Andrew Mitchell, like Johnson a member of the governing Conservative Party, had accused Russia of acting like a "rogue elephant" and "shredding international law" in Syria.

Mitchell said a no-fly zone was feasible if the international will to impose it in defiance of Moscow, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main ally, existed.

But Johnson said that a no-fly zone could only be imposed if those doing so were prepared to "shoot down planes and helicopters" and instead suggested that countries such as the UK should pursue tougher sanctions targeting both Syria and Russia.

"We cannot commit to a no-fly zone unless we are prepared to shoot down planes and helicopters that violate that zone," said Johnson, "and we need to think very carefully about the consequences."

Johnson also called for protests outside the Russian embassy in London, and criticised the Stop the War coalition, a left-wing anti-war movement created to oppose the UK's involvement in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, for its failure to organise demonstrations there.

The Russian embassy in London immediately hit back, asking on Twitter if Johnson was pursuing a new kind of diplomacy, and that there was no proof Russia had committed war crimes.

Johnson said that the UK, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, was "doing what we can at the UN to point out what the Russians are up to", and pointed out that Moscow had been forced to use its Security Council veto five times to protect its own position.

He said that US Secretary of State John Kerry had "done his utmost" to negotiate an end to the killing with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

And he added: "If Russia continues in its current path then I believe that that great country risks becoming a pariah nation and if Putin's strategy is to restore the greatness and the glory of Russia then I believe he risks seeing his ambition turn to ashes in the face of international contempt for what is happening in Aleppo."

In comments prior to the debate, Mitchell had compared Russia's actions in Syria and its alleged disregard for "international rules-based systems of law" to the conduct of Nazi Germany in the 1930s prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. 

He also accused Russia of deliberately targeting an aid convoy bound for residents living under siege in east Aleppo in September.

Tuesday's debate was also called by Alison McGovern, an MP for the opposition Labour Party and the co-chair of the all-party Syria group, and comes as Syrian activists told Middle East Eye that Russian air strikes had killed eight people in Aleppo.

A bunker buster bombs fired from Russian warplanes had killed eight people and wounded 20 others in the east Aleppo neighbourhood of Bustan al-Qasr, including two toddlers, activists said.

McGovern said the lessons of the Bosnian war in the 1990s when western action was delayed in the face of war crimes were being forgotten. 

She paid a tearful tribute to her murdered colleague Jo Cox, her predecessor as co-chair of parliament's all-party Syria group who had called for the UK to intervene in Syria against Assad in a debate in 2013, who was killed in June.

The House of Commons voted against air strikes against Assad forces following chemical weapons attacks near Damascus in August 2013. In November 2015 MPs voted in favour of military action in Syria against Islamic State militants, extending the operations against IS in Iraq, where the UK is part of the US-led anti-IS coalition.

"In Syria today, the world is confronted by an unspeakable evil and unimaginable suffering," she said. "The pictures we see make us want to close your eyes and turn away from the horror. We cannot unsee what we have seen and turn our backs on one of the greatest crimes of our century."

Labour divisions over Syria

Divisions on the Labour benches emerged with the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry facing heckles from her own MPs during the debate as she backed the plan by the UN Syria envoy to have Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters escorted out of the city.

However backbenchers, including former Labour minister Ben Bradshaw, criticised her claim that talks with Russia for a new ceasefire were the best way forward.

"We had a ceasefire but it was brutally blown out of the water. Can we not call Russia's actions a war crime?" said Bradshaw, a prominent opponent of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Supporters of Corbyn from the Momentum group signed a letter prior to the debate calling on the Labour leader to condemn Russian and Assad government bombing of Syria as war crimes. 

The letter comes after Corbyn was heckled by protesters at a Stop the War event in London on Saturday over his Syria policy.

The letter says: "We ask that you condemn, clearly and specifically, the actions of Assad and Russia in Syria, which have caused the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths and which present the biggest obstacle to any workable solution to the Syrian crisis."

The Commons debate was the first to discuss the situation in Syria after a ceasefire aimed at giving access to humanitarian aid into Syria fell through on 22 September.

Since the ceasefire collapsed, the Syrian government has launched air strikes and a ground offensive to seize back areas from rebels in east Aleppo. 

Reuters on Monday reported that militia groups loyal to President Assad had taken control of nearly half of rebel-held areas in east Aleppo.

Bombardment from Syrian warplanes and the Russian air force also destroyed the city's largest hospital and water works which served more than 250,000 people.

Monitoring groups have reported that at least 338 people have been killed since the end of the ceasefire with Russia deploying cluster munitions and incendiary bombs in built-up civilian areas.

The US State Department last week said that more than 10,000 foreign fighters loyal to Bashar al-Assad were amassing outside east Aleppo in preparation for a renewed ground offensive to take control from the Syrian rebels.

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