GENEVA: A U.N. panel said Wednesday the evacuation of eastern Aleppo, after months of siege and aerial bombing by Russian and Syrian forces, was one of many war crimes committed by those fighting for control of the city.
The findings came amid open-ended peace talks mediated by a U.N. envoy, and could bolster opposition demands for a political transition in which Syrian President Bashar Assad would cede power — something the government has adamantly rejected.
But in a sign of moderate progress, after almost a week of meetings, the sides appear to have signed off on the agenda proposed by U.N. Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura: separate "baskets" of topics covering the issues of governance, elections and constitutions.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters in Geneva that "the parties have agreed to ... discuss all issues in a parallel way, on several tracks." After a Damascus request, the issue of terrorism, is also on the table, he said.
De Mistura held back-to-back meetings with the Damascus government delegation and the main Syrian opposition Wednesday.
Yahya Kadamani, a prominent member of the largest opposition mission in Geneva, described his delegation's meeting with Russian minister in Geneva as "positive." Opposition delegates, he said, used the meeting to push Moscow for a change of approach in Syria.
"We want them to be neutral and not an enemy to Syria," he said. "We want them to put pressure and be guarantors to the process of political transition."
Earlier in the day, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria unveiled a report looking at violations by all parties in last year's battle for Aleppo, including indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, and the use of chemical agents and cluster munitions. A stinging bombing campaign by the Russia and Syrian air force, coupled with the denial of humanitarian aid, drove rebels in the city to finally surrender.
"The scale of what happened in Aleppo is unprecedented in the Syrian conflict," said the commission's chairman, Paulo Pinheiro.
Aleppo was the economic capital of Syria before becoming a major battleground after rebels swept in during the summer of 2012. For Assad, the capture of eastern Aleppo in December was a huge victory and shifted the military balance in his favor.
The agreement to evacuate rebel-held eastern Aleppo gave civilians no option to remain at the end of the protracted campaign, in which daily aerial bombings killed hundreds of people and left all the hospitals in the area out of service.
The commission said the conditions of the agreement amounted to "the war crime of forced displacement."
The report looked at violations committed between July 21, when the siege of rebel-held part of Aleppo started, and Dec. 22, when Syrian troops and allied forces assumed full control of the city.
It drew on the testimony of 291 eyewitnesses, satellite imagery and an array of material, including medical reports, forensic evidence and information provided by U.N. member states.
"For months, the Syrian and Russian air forces relentlessly bombarded eastern Aleppo city as part of a strategy to force surrender," Pinheiro said. "The deliberate targeting of civilians has resulted in the immense loss of human life, including hundreds of children."
The commission said it was often difficult to know whether specific strikes were carried out by Russia or the Syrian government. But it said it had determined that Syrian warplanes targeted hospitals on at least two occasions, and deliberately attacked a humanitarian aid convoy on Sept. 19. It also found evidence that the Syrian government had used prohibited cluster munitions.
Both sides carried out indiscriminate attacks in densely populated civilian areas, it said, adding that rebels had launched imprecise mortar attacks on government-held neighborhoods. As defeat was near, some rebels shot civilians to prevent them from leaving and used them as human shields, while government forces forcibly conscripted 200 men.
Pinheiro said the commission's investigators are ready to share their list of suspects with a recently established U.N. panel tasked with building cases toward the prosecution of those responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity in Syria.
The report also said Syria's air force used chemical weapons — chlorine gas — against residential areas. Russia and China on Tuesday vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution outlining punitive measures against individuals responsible.
British Foreign Office, which backed the resolution, said the U.N. report underscores the "urgent need to strengthen the current cease-fire to avoid more innocent civilians enduring the same suffering as those in Aleppo."
A Western diplomat in Switzerland, meanwhile, said the latest talks — dubbed Geneva IV — marked an improvement on previous inconclusive rounds. The diplomat, who was not authorized to speak to reporters, spoke on condition of anonymity.
The talks seek to capitalize on a cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey after the evacuation of eastern Aleppo, but fighting is still underway in different parts of the country.
Pro-government forces have seized the citadel in Palmyra, about a mile away from the town's famed archaeological site, according to media operated by the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which is fighting alongside Syrian government forces.
The Islamic State group seized Palmyra in December, months after being driven out by Russian-backed Syrian forces.
In Damascus, government forces pressed on with their offensive to seize the Barzeh and Qaboun neighborhoods from the opposition, the activist-run Qasioun News Agency and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Pro-government forces targeted the area with roughly 18 surface-to-surface missiles Wednesday, according to the Observatory, which said around a dozen Syrian troops and allied militia members were killed during clashes in the eastern suburbs of Damascus over the past 24 hours.
The Barzeh, Qaboun, and Tishreen neighborhoods are one of last two footholds of the opposition in the capital.
In southwestern Syria, IS-affiliated militants clashed with Syrian rebels, the Observatory said. Members of the so-called Khalid Ibn al-Walid Army targeted rebels in Daraa's western countryside, the monitoring group said. Last month, the IS-affiliated militants captured several villages and a large town from Syrian rebels in the Daraa countryside.