Russians talk with Syrian rebels as eastern Aleppo runs out of food
Russian officials and rebel groups are holding talks in Turkey on the fate of eastern Aleppo as food reserves in the enclave dwindle to zero, opposition and diplomatic sources said on Thursday.
The negotiations have been under way in Ankara for a week. The deal on the table involves a ceasefire and an opening of corridors for delivering humanitarian aid in return for the departure from the city of extremists among the enclave’s defenders.
It is similar bargain that the UN envoy on the Syrian conflict, Staffan de Mistura, proposed in October. However, although the plight of eastern Aleppo is even more desperate now, the arrest or disappearance of hundreds of men stopped at regime checkpoints as they fled the area in the past week has undermined trust in Moscow’s guarantees of safe passage out of the city through government-controlled areas.
The level of trust at the Ankara talks is also low because Russia has been leading a relentless aerial bombing campaign against eastern Aleppo that has caused mass civilian casualties. Russia is now perceived as having declining influence in Aleppo over the regime and the Iranian-led militias spearheading the house-to-house fighting in the ruined city.
“The Russians are playing a double game,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who is now political adviser to the opposition High Negotiations Committee. “They want to show themselves to be the superpower in the region, to broker a deal but, at the same time, they are bombing and killing everyone left in Aleppo.
“The Russians would prefer to have a ceasefire, to help their relations with Turkey and show they are interested in peace, but the regime and the Iranians – they don’t care. They want to take all of Aleppo. For the Russians, failing to achieve a ceasefire in Aleppo will show just how weak they are.”
Eastern Aleppo has been under siege for 150 days and has suffered increasingly heavy bombardment for several months. There are estimated to be about 200,000 people trapped without any functioning hospitals and with medical and food supplies exhausted.
After a ground offensive in the past week led by Lebanese Hezbollah units and Iranian-led Shia militias, the rebels lost 40% of their territory in the city. There are now thought to be about up to 8,000 rebel fighters left, of which an estimated 100 to 400 are part of the extremist Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Qaida-aligned Nusra Front.
Randa Slim, an analyst at the Middle East Institute who has been involved in backchannel dialogue on Syria in the region, said the Russian proposals in Ankara did not appear to offer anything new.
“The issue has always been that these humanitarian corridors go through government territory, and the four corridors the Russians are talking about still go through government territory, and we have heard now of hundred of people being taken at checkpoints,” Slim said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday it had asked Damascus for access to the sites where Aleppo residents were being screened and detained as they fled the city.
“We are of course trying to get access to these screening facilities and screening centres. In Syria, we also have access to a number of places of detention,” Dominik Stillhart, the ICRC director of operations told Reuters. “But the situation is, for the time being, extremely confusing. It is not easy for our teams to have access to these centres.”
But the regime side now believes the crushing of the enclave’s resistance will be completed within weeks. Reuters quoted a senior official in the pro-regime alliance as saying that the current war aim was to drive all rebels out of Aleppo city before Donald Trump took office as US president.
“I think that the plan is to have Aleppo taken over completely by the Syrian government forces by the end of the year and certainly by the time of the inauguration in Washington,”said Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Moscow centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Russia has been basically pursuing a line in Syria that envisaged the United States and Russia playing the dominant role in the Syrian diplomatic process and the United States and Russia collaborating against Isis,” Trenin said. “Both strategies, or both objectives rather, would contribute to Russia’s overarching goal in Syria to be treated as a major power globally because if you can be of decisive importance in a place like the Middle East.”