UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A meeting on Saturday between Moscow and Washington is extremely important because it could avoid "massive destruction" if a plan for evacuating rebel fighters and civilians from war-ravaged Aleppo can be worked out, the U.N.'s special envoy to Syria said.
Staffan de Mistura said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday that "the writing on the wall looks as if eastern Aleppo's battle is virtually over," and he hopes the meeting in Geneva will lead to an alternative to the bloodshed that would surely come with the last part of the battle for the city.
Syrian forces and their allies have taken control of nearly all of the former opposition stronghold. Russia and militias allied with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah have been staunch supporters of President Bashar Assad in his country's bloody civil war, now in its sixth year.
Civilians streamed out on foot in the wake of the relentless military campaign to drive rebels from their crumbling enclave. They joined thousands who have fled since Nov. 26, seeking shelter from the nonstop bombardment and crippling siege.
Government forces and allied militiamen say they control nearly 90 percent of what was once rebel-held territory — a figure the opposition disputes.
De Mistura said it would be a "major achievement" if rebel fighters were to be allowed to safely withdraw along with citizens who are trapped in the city who want to follow them.
"I myself have expressed horror at the idea that by Christmas we would have the final part of the so-called battle for Aleppo that could have ended up in massive destruction — no Aleppo left — and 200,000 refugees streaming toward Turkey," he said. "None of this may happen, or not to that extent" if an agreement is reached at Saturday's meeting.
De Mistura also suggested that the meeting could pave the way for renewed peace talks. "How many more battles do we need before finally people sit around the table," he said.
Meanwhile on Friday, the 193-member U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution demanding an immediate end to attacks on civilians and all besieged areas in war-torn Syria including Aleppo. The non-binding resolution drafted by Canada passed by a vote of 122 to 13, with 36 abstentions.
The General Assembly also expressed grave concern at the continued deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the country and demanded "rapid, safe, sustained, unhindered and unconditional humanitarian access throughout the country."
The vote comes just days after the Security Council failed to adopt a similar resolution demanding a cease-fire in Aleppo after China and Russia vetoed it.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that he hopes in the next days, the Syrian sides and peace mediators "can find some way to get to the table" and "have a serious discussion about how to end this war."