Aleppo in ruins by Christmas, warns UN chief
De Mistura says he'll escort rebels out of besieged city to end bombing
The UN's top diplomat for the Syrian crisis has offered to personally escort hundreds of al-Qa'ida fighters out of Aleppo if it would end hostilities, warning that the city will be completely destroyed by Christmas if the current levels of fighting continue.
Staffan de Mistura, the 69-year-old Italian aristocrat tapped by the UN to try to bring peace to Syria, said he was prepared to offer his own body as a "guarantee" if it would convince fighters from the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qa'ida-linked group, to leave Aleppo.
Al-Nusra - currently operating under the name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham - offered no immediate response to the UN diplomat's dramatic offer but it was reportedly endorsed by Russia and met with anger and dismay by rebel groups in eastern Aleppo.
Mr de Mistura warned that if the fighting continued then Aleppo would be completely destroyed in two and a half months and hundreds of thousands of refugees would be fleeing the remains of the city.
"In two months or a maximum of two and a half months, the city of eastern Aleppo at this rate may be totally destroyed," Mr de Mistura said.
"Thousands of Syrian civilians, not terrorists, will be killed and thousands and thousands of them may try to become refugees in order to escape from this.
"This is what you, we, the world, will be seeing when we will be trying to celebrate Christmas or the end of the year if this continues at this rate."
Russia and the Syrian regime have long claimed that their objective in attacking rebel-held east Aleppo was to drive out terrorist groups like al-Nusra.
The West has accused both Moscow and Damascus of using terrorism as a pretext when their real objective is to stomp out all remaining opposition to Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Mr de Mistura's offer appeared to accept the Syrian regime's position at face value: that if al-Nusra's fighters left Aleppo then Mr Assad and his allies might cease their attacks on the city.
Speaking in Geneva, he said that around 900 members of al-Nusra were still in Aleppo and he asked the jihadists to "look at my eyes" and decide if they were prepared to stay in the city even if it meant more casualties among the 275,000 civilians in the area.
"A thousand of you are deciding on the destiny of 275,000 civilians," he said. "If you did decide to leave [Aleppo] with dignity and with your weapons, to Idlib or anywhere you wanted to go, I personally am ready physically to accompany you."
His offer conjured up the extraordinary image of Mr de Mistura, who is known for his elegant suits and pince-nez spectacles, walking through the ruins of Aleppo alongside 900 members of one of Syria's most hardened jihadist groups.
"I can't guarantee more than my own body," he said.
He also addressed the Syrian and Russian governments asking them to agree to an "immediate and total aerial bombardment halt [of Aleppo] if al-Nusra leaves".
Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, immediately announced his support for Mr de Mistura's proposal, according to the Tass news agency.
It was not clear what the Assad regime made of the idea.
There was also no immediate response from al-Nusra itself but analysts, rebel groups and civilians in east Aleppo immediately denounced Mr de Mistura's offer for essentially accepting the regime's premise that it was fighting terrorism.
"No one helped Assad and Russia more than de Mistura," said Abdelkafe al-Hamdo, an English teacher and activist in east Aleppo.
"De Mistura is now a partner in killing children, women and all civilians inside Aleppo."
Mr al-Hamdo said the UN diplomat appeared to be justifying the bombardment by pointing to al-Nusra's presence in the city.
"He is giving the regime the right to kill civilians."
Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, offered a blunt analysis on Twitter. "Sorry, this is just idiotic," he said.
Meanwhile, the Russian military has warned the United States against striking Syrian government forces, saying it is ready to use its air defence weapons to protect them.
Russian defence ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov warned that the Russian military will not have time to contact its US counterparts if they see missiles on their way to any targets - indicating it would strike back without warning should Syrian forces be attacked.
Maj Gen Konashenkov voiced concern about media reports alleging that Washington is considering strikes on Syrian troops. A US-led coalition air strike killed more than 60 Syrian government soldiers last month. The US said the strike was unintentional.