GAZIANTEP, Turkey – Russia has announced an ultimatum to Syrian rebels and civilians in eastern Aleppo to evacuate by 7 p.m. local time on Friday or face military escalation. This ultimatum, Moscow argues, aims to avoid “senseless victims.” However, the international community should not take Russia at its word. Moscow has, on numerous occasions, claimed “cease-fires” that never held but rather were used as an opportunity to consolidate gains and make further advances, including by renewing airstrikes. There is no reason to believe that this ultimatum, marketed as a gesture of goodwill, will be any different. In fact, the announcement could reveal the disturbing tactics of Moscow and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to launch a decisive offensive in the war to seize all of the strategic city of Aleppo, the eastern part of which is totally under siege and still home to some 275,000 civilians.
This seemingly perverse strategy is timed just days ahead of the United States election, which will generate mass coverage on mainstream and social media platforms. Voices on the ground trying to shed light on the situation fear a media blackout on Syria. “With the world’s attention diverted by U.S. election day, the Russians, alongside their Syrian regime counterparts, are beginning preparations for a wide-scale assault on the besieged city of Aleppo,” says journalist Rami Jarrah, indicating that the timing of the announcement may be firmly part of Moscow’s strategy.
Russia continues to deceive public audiences with statements about “truces” and enabling “humanitarian access,” while its fighter jets have never left Aleppo’s airspace. So-called “safe” corridors are not safe at all, lined with snipers and subject to persistent shelling, as demonstrated by the United Nations’ failure to deliver any assistance since early July due to lack of security guarantees, and the bombing of the U.N. aid convoy of 31 trucks headed for Aleppo on September 19.
While opposition forces intend to stand their ground and fight, Moscow has left little choice for civilians who are distrustful of Russian intentions. After more than a year of daily deadly bombardments on their hospitals, schools and neighborhoods, they don’t believe that Russia will suddenly now keep them safe in these designated “humanitarian corridors,” areas that have not enabled humanitarian access for medical or aid deliveries. Everyone is afraid to be the first to head out, as those few that did try to leave in recent weeks came under fire along the declared “safe routes.”
Many others do not want to leave their homes and face the hardship that displacement entails; many want to continue to resist the Assad regime. Yet they are threatened with collective punishment for standing up for their right to life – that they will all be killed if they stay. According to Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem, Aleppo will be theirs “when there are surrenders, or [people] decide to leave East Aleppo, or be killed.”
A strategy of extermination is Assad’s way to win this war.
A strategy of deception is Putin’s way to win this war.
There is one dangerous element to the alleged ultimatum that may deviate from past actions to gain ground and suppress political opposition and civilian survival in Syria’s largest and most strategic city. Should the Russians go ahead with their plan to bombard eastern Aleppo, it is likely that this may be coupled with a ground offensive by Assad’s army and allied foreign militias aimed at fully capturing the strategic territory. The result would be a humanitarian catastrophe, and likely also politically decisive for the country.
Many questions around the tactics and timing of Moscow’s announcement shed light on the true intentions of this military strategy disguised as a humanitarian effort to force civilians to leave their city. If the Russians and Assad regime were actually keen on saving lives of “senseless victims,” why have they not provided a proper way out even for civilians? Do they actually want the opposition forces and its civil council to exit safely from the city or do they prefer to keep them there to finish them off once and for all?
And why now? Why repeat the same line of a “truce” that has not seen a cessation of hostilities or airstrikes? Why, on the evening of Friday November 4 is the deadline set? Is it by coincidence that it falls on the heels of the U.S. election day – guaranteed to swarm and fill the media with presidential election coverage? As well as seeking a distraction, Russia and the Assad regime may be taking the opportunity to escalate action before a new administration in Washington takes office with a potential shift in U.S. policy toward Syria.
The siege and bombardment of east Aleppo have been described as “crimes of historic proportions” by the U.N.’s top human rights official, as causing mass civilian casualties amounting to war crimes. Last week, Syrian rebels launched an offensive in an attempt to break the siege of 300,000 civilians denied access to critical supply routes for food, medicine, water and other basic needs and trade of goods. The ongoing battle is the most strategic and decisive in the country’s five-year-long war.
The Assad regime, backed by its Russian allies, will stop at nothing to achieve this prize. This is only the latest tactic in their strategy of deceitful diplomacy and utilizing humanitarian suffering as a weapon, from starvation to deploying chemical weapons. Allowing them to get away with these crimes will be the shame of the international community and the responsibility of an informed global public.
This article was originally published by An-Nahar and is reprinted here with permission.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.