LONDON – There is no humanitarian motive behind Russia’s 11-hour “humanitarian pause” in Aleppo on Thursday. Under the terms of the cease-fire, corridors will be established allowing rebels and civilians to leave the city, during which time Russia and Syria will halt airstrikes.
Moscow is portraying the pause as a humanitarian gesture and diplomatic overture, despite the fact that Damascus still refuses to allow aid into rebel-held eastern Aleppo, where the U.N. estimates that 275,000 civilians are under siege. However, as with previous cease-fires, this is an escalation – part of an overall military solution to the conflict – masquerading as diplomacy and humanitarianism.
Some analysts speculate that Moscow’s announcement is the result of international pressure and condemnation, as well as threats from Western powers of further sanctions over its relentless bombing campaign that has devastated eastern Aleppo. However, these pressures have, thus far, failed to deter Russia or the Syrian regime, both of which act with impunity largely due to Moscow’s veto power at the U.N. Security Council.
A case in point is the way Moscow dismissed U.N. Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein’s warning earlier this month that Russia’s airstrikes on civilian targets in Aleppo may amount to crimes against humanity. Hussein also proposed a limit to the use of the veto by the permanent members of the Security Council. This would allow for the conflict to be referred to the International Criminal Court, a move previously blocked by Russia and China.
“Such a referral would be more than justified, given the rampant and deeply shocking impunity that has characterized the conflict and the magnitude of the crimes that have been committed,” Hussein said.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin dismissed the statement, saying: “It’s not [Hussein’s] responsibility to discuss veto powers. Unfortunately my good friend has been overstepping the limits of his responsibilities quite a bit.” There is no declared threat on the horizon that would challenge this impunity, or force Moscow and Damascus to change their calculus.
Syria and Russia’s undeclared but obvious goal for the pause in fighting is to facilitate the capture of eastern Aleppo by encouraging rebels to abandon their positions, before ramping up the previous onslaught under the pretext that those remaining in rebel-held areas are either fighters or sympathizers, making them a belligerent and legitimate target. This is a deadly ultimatum, not an olive branch.
Rebel groups have rejected the offer, aware that it is a ploy, and that the loss of eastern Aleppo would be devastating to the opposition. Furthermore, residents in eastern Aleppo have expressed legitimate fears that they will be detained by pro-regime forces if they leave, as well as understandable reluctance to abandon their homes and face indefinite displacement.
However, even if residents and rebels were willing to use the corridors, Russia gave relief groups only three days notice, which is insufficient to prepare for an evacuation. The U.N. criticized the pause in fighting, saying that 11 hours is not long enough, and humanitarian agencies have previously described Russia’s proposal to create “humanitarian corridors” as “deeply flawed.”
Without mass evacuations, a bloodbath following the pause – one that will be even greater than the city has become accustomed to – is guaranteed. This is not mere speculation. Military escalation by the regime and its allies have followed the end of every previous cease-fire.
Just three days prior to Moscow’s announcement, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spoke of “cleaning” Aleppo, adding that this would be a “springboard” for winning the war. This is chillingly reminiscent of when, in February 2011, Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi called on his supporters to “cleanse Libya house by house” if protests against him continued.
A week earlier, Assad vowed yet again to recapture Aleppo and the rest of the country, repeating his claim that there are no moderate rebels. This contradicts Russia’s distinction between moderate rebels and “terrorists” and undermines Moscow’s attempts – most recently on Tuesday – to encourage the former group to separate their fighters and positions from those of the latter.
What’s more, in the last fortnight, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to keep up his Lebanese movement’s “jihad” in support of Assad. A data analysis by Reuters showed that Russia too has “built up its forces in Syria since a cease-fire collapsed in late September, sending in troops, planes and advanced missile systems.”
Reuters added: “The data points to a doubling of supply runs by air and sea compared to the nearly two-week period preceding the truce. It appears to be Russia’s biggest military deployment to Syria since President Vladimir Putin said in March he would pull out some of his country’s forces.”
In this light, the evacuation proposal can be seen solely as a strategic move, allowing Assad’s allies to beef up their forces, in order to accomplish Assad’s goal of recapturing Aleppo as a means of retaking all of Syria.
U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said earlier this month that Aleppo may be “totally destroyed” by the end of the year. It is a warning that should be taken seriously. It is certainly in line with the infamous pro-regime slogan: “Assad or we’ll burn the country.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.