British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has given his backing to French calls for an International Criminal Court investigation into alleged Russian war crimes in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.
Johnson made the comments on Tuesday as the lower house of the British parliament met for an emergency debate on the situation in the rebel-held east of the city.
The minister said there was little doubt the targeting of civilian structures in Aleppo, such as hospitals, was intentional and, therefore, against international law.
“Hospitals have been targeted with such frequency and precision that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this must be deliberate policy … We do think there could be advantage in the ICC procedures,” Johnson said.
“I would remind this house that in recent history war criminals have been prosecuted decades after the offences.”
Air strikes in Aleppo on Tuesday in the Bustan and Ferdous neighbourhoods killed at least 43 people, with the death toll likely to go up as rescuers work through the rubble.
At least two of those killed were children and strikes were ongoing at the time of publication.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Russian Embassy in London denied targeting civilians and criticised the UK and other Western states for their conduct in the five-year war, which has killed an estimated 400,000 people.
“Britain’s logic implies putting an end to fighting terrorists and their allies … Our logic is different – fight on to destroy the jihadists sparing the civilians.
“Syria is going through the hard process of defeating terrorists. Pity that the British parliamentarians placed themselves on the wrong side of history this time,” it said.
Johnson’s comments came after Conservative MP and former minister Andrew Mitchell compared Russia to Nazi Germany before World War II.
“[Russia] is behaving like a rogue elephant, shredding international humanitarian law, abusing its veto powers on the UN Security Council, using the veto to protect itself from its own war crimes,” Mitchell said.
“The Russians are not attacking military formations, they are not engaging with militias and fighters, they are attacking hospitals and a terrified population.
“The Russians are doing to the UN precisely what Italy and Germany did to the League of Nations in the 1930s, and they are doing to Aleppo precisely what the Nazis did to Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.”
Mitchell’s comments were lauded on both sides of the house, with Labour MPs and Conservatives suggesting the implementation of a no-fly zone, sanctions on the Russians, and food drops to besieged areas.
Scottish National Party MP Brendan O’Hara joined other parliamentarians in condemning alleged Russian use of the controversial “double-tap” tactic, which involves striking an area once, waiting for rescuers to arrive, and then attacking again.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry drew heckles from some of her own MPs for insisting talks with Russia should continue despite accusations of war crimes.
Thornberry condemned air strikes in the east of Aleppo, as well as rebel mortar attacks against government-held territory, but said efforts to reach a ceasefire with the Russians should continue.
“In a multi-layered, multi-faceted civil war, the last thing we need is more parties bombing,” Thornberry said.
“The anger that people rightly feel here must not prevent us from seeking to work with the Russian government to restore the Kerry-Lavrov peace process.”
Frustration at Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war could open it up to further sanctions, with politicians across Europe taking up a more belligerent position.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin cancelled a trip to France after its request for an ICC investigation.
“The anger over Russia’s behaviour in Syria has been bubbling under the surface in British and French policy circles for a while. The recent failed ceasefire in Aleppo has also driven many German policymakers in a more hostile position towards the Kremlin,” said Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in European studies at King’s College London.
“This certainly has led to a diplomatic escalation that means it is less likely that sanctions over Crimea or Donbass will be dropped quickly. There is also the possibility of a more aggressive EU regulatory approach towards Russian financial institutions known to be intertwined with the Russian security state.
“Though the Europeans will probably not do much more than this, most importantly this diplomatic frustration means they will not stand in the way of Turkish or GCC efforts to arm the rebels,” Clarkson told Al Jazeera.
Zouhir al-Shimale in Aleppo contributed to this report