Russia Has Never Been Serious about Lifting the Siege on Aleppo, So Why the Temporary Ceasefire Now?

On October 17, 2016, Russia’s defense minister announced that Russian and Syrian forces would be halting hostilities for eight hours in the eastern districts of Aleppo on October 20 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. This brief cease-fire will supposedly allow for the free passage of civilians, evacuation of the sick and wounded, and withdrawal of fighters. 

This initiative followed a bloody day of air strikes on rebel-held districts in and around Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 50 civilians, including 18 children, were killed in air strikes on the eastern part of the city in the 24 hours before the Russian announcement. Syrian government aircraft have also carried out intensive air strikes on rebel areas since the regime launched an offensive to recapture the whole city of Aleppo on September 22.

The United Nations welcomed the proposed eight-hour ceasefire, but said it would be unable to deliver humanitarian aid or evacuate civilians who wish to leave. “We would welcome any pause in the fighting, but there is a need for a longer pause in order to get the aid in,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric. However, rebels in the east—along with many residents—refused the proposition, viewing it as a trick to reduce the pressure calling for an end to the regime and its allies’ bombarding of Aleppo.

Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, is the country’s former economic powerhouse. Its countryside is a rebel stronghold and one of their main supply lines from Turkey. The city has been divided into government and rebel zones—west and east, respectively—since mid-2012, shortly after the fighting began there. The tit-for-tat ground battle between the two sides changed in late September when pro-Assad forces—with heavy Russian air support—launched an offensive to retake the city. The offensive has plunged Syria into some of the worst violence since the protests started in March 2011. The air strikes killed and wounded hundreds, flattened buildings, and laid waste to Aleppo’s already crippled medical sector. Between 250,000 and 300,000 citizens have been under siege without access to food, medical aid, or humanitarian assistance for several weeks, which has also led to a rapid rise in food prices.

This latest offer, similar to those that came previously, lacks any clear enforcement mechanisms to prevent the targeting of civilians who choose to leave the city. The Russian Defense Minister announced on July 28 of this year that Russia and Syria would open three humanitarian corridors out of eastern Aleppo to allow civilians to flee, and a fourth corridor for surrendering fighters.

However, activists and locals in eastern Aleppo have denied the existence of such safe corridors. “There were no corridors open. The regime and the Russians targeted the locations of the designated death corridors. I prefer to die at home instead of going to where they choose to kill me,” said Anas al-Rashidi, a local resident of the besieged Al-Ansari Mashhad district of Aleppo, in August. The Syrian Network for Human Rights also published a statement warning people against using July’s corridors, arguing that they risk detention, torture, and even death along the routes. As evidence, the network highlighted 750 documented cases of forced disappearances of people who crossed from opposition to regime-held areas after the establishment of similar corridors in Homs in 2014.

For such humanitarian corridors to be effective, several conditions need to be in place. First, they need support and backing from all actors, who in turn would guarantee their security. A task force, chaired by a neutral party or parties, would monitor the truce and report and follow up on violations. These corridors should be voluntary, with guarantees provided to civilians who choose to leave that they will not be detained and will be given a choice of where to relocate, be it in regime or rebel-held territory. Finally, these corridors should neither be used as an excuse to justify further violations nor as a substitute for allowing aid to be delivered to civilians who choose to remain in besieged areas. 

There are well-founded concerns among Syrians on the ground that the offer, amid mounting criticism of the Moscow-backed assault, is a trick to reduce pressure on both the Syrian regime and Russia. Western countries are increasingly calling out Moscow and Damascus for committing potential war crimes and demanding the cessation of their joint offensive on the eastern part of the city. Therefore, locals believe that Russia aims to reduce this pressure by offering a brief ceasefire. “If they are genuine about protecting civilians, they would have stopped bombarding them and targeting service facilities such as hospitals and schools. During the previous ceasefire, they did not allow anyone out and did not allow aid in. Why would we trust them this time? It’s clear to everyone here that this offer is a trick to buy time while trying to capture the city,” said Mustafa Hassan, a local resident of the besieged Shaar district of Aleppo, commenting via WhatsApp.

Additionally, Russia also announced on October 18, 2016 that they had suspended their air strikes in Aleppo starting at 10 a.m. local time to pave the way for an eight-hour truce on October 20. However, locals on the ground reported an increase in the number of attacks. “Are you serious?” said Bashir Mohammed, a local resident of the besieged Al-Ansari Mashhad district of Aleppo, laughing when I questioned him about the supposed suspension. “The number of attacks has increased in our area since morning. I got to know about this ‘bombing pause’ from you. They will not stop their attacks until we all leave this city or die in it. They want us to take their surrender deals,” he added.

Russia’s offer does not provide enough time to allow aid to be delivered, a clear sign that they intend to keep pressuring the besieged. The Syrian regime has been systematically using siege tactics in its starve or surrender strategy, allowing it to capture many areas of Syria, including Homs and rural Damascus. Speaking to Danish television on October 6, Bashar al-Assad vowed to recapture all of Syria, adding that he prefers to do so using local deals and amnesties that would allow rebels to go to other areas.

Russia’s brief ceasefire, which does not allow aid deliveries to besieged Aleppo and cannot be trusted to allow civilians out, is another delay tactic and a way to get bargaining leverage and reduce international pressure on its policies. The only way to stop Russia and the regime’s systematic attacks against civilians is for the international community to push for sustained humanitarian access across all of Syria and be willing to back up these calls with action.

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist, researcher, and Chatham House Associate Fellow who focuses on security policy, conflict studies, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22

Image: Photo: People bury relatives whom died in an airstrike yesterday in the rebel held besieged al-Qaterji neighbourhood, in Aleppo, Syria October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail