Aleppo: Russia offers humanitarian pause and exit, rebels refuse

Aleppo: Russia offers humanitarian pause and exit, rebels refuse
People walk along a street near damaged buildings in Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Russia on Wednesday told rebels holed up in Syria’s Aleppo to leave by Friday evening saying it has offered a new humanitarian pause in the city, while the rebels refused the proposal and said they will complete their battle.

Russia’s defence ministry said Putin ordered that the aid corridors – which Russia had opened earlier – will also be open on Friday, for longer hours, from 9am to 7pm, along with two new exit routes for the fighters to leave eastern Aleppo.

The ministry announced Putin’s new gesture in a statement on Wednesday.

Civilians and the sick and wounded would be allowed to leave via six other corridors, it said.

President Vladimir Putin had ordered the pause in fighting “to avoid senseless victims,” the Defence Ministry said, saying that Syrian authorities would ensure that Syrian troops pulled back from the two corridors designated for rebels.

The Russian Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that rebels inside Aleppo had taken heavy losses during fighting and were effectively trapped.

“All attempts by the rebels to break through in Aleppo have failed,” the ministry said. “The terrorists have suffered heavy losses in lives, weapons and equipment. They have no chance to break out of the city.”

Russia has previously announced a humanitarian pause in the attacks on eastern Aleppo, but it failed and ended after three days as Assad regime’s jets and helicopers resumed their raids on the city dropping barrel bombs, cluster bombs and bunker busters.

The new Russian announcment differs form the previous ones, as the Russian defence ministry appealed to the rebels directly. It said ‘Your offensive on western Aleppo has been unsuccessful. Syrian government forces have beaten you back. And now is time to leave’, giving them 10 hours to do so.

Rebels refusal

The rebels have rejected Russian demands that they withdraw from the northern city of Aleppo by Friday evening, according to officials in rebel factions.

“This is completely out of the question. We will not give up the city of Aleppo to the Russians and we won’t surrender,” Zakaria Malahifji, of the Fastaqim rebel group, told Reuters news agency on Wednesday.

Malahifji said there were no safe exit corridors, as Russia had stated.

“It’s not true. Civilians and fighters are not leaving. Civilians are afraid of the regime, they don’t trust it. And the fighters are not surrendering,” he said.

“If it [Moscow] was being honest that it’s trying to bring peace, then it should negotiate with the rebels over its withdrawal from the Syrian theatre in a way that would preserve its dignity,” said Yaser Alyoussef of the powerful Nour al-Din al-Zinki brigades.

Air strikes had continued despite Russian claims of a 15-day halt, he said. “We are not interested in the one-sided truce announced by Russia … we are still at the beginning of our operations to break the siege and we have made serious advances.”

Abu Yusef al-Muhajir, Ahrar al-Sham Movement’s military spokesperson also said that “the battle for Aleppo will not stop until the siege on the eastern neighborhoods is ended, and a road is opened between it and the countryside.”


The Battle for Aleppo

The Assad regime forces, backed by Russian air power, Iranian ground forces and Shi’ite militia fighters from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, has been tightening its grip on rebel-held districts of Aleppo this year, and this summer achieved a long-held goal of fully encircling the area.

Rebels opened a corridor to the east for the month of August after pro-government forces first applied a blockade in July, but they were not able to hold it as the government and its Russian ally pounded the gap with artillery and airstrikes. Pro-government forces reapplied the siege in early September.

Assad regime, backed by Russia, said on September 22 it was starting a new wide offensive to recapture the rebel-held parts of Aleppo after a week-long ceasefire was declared officially over on 19 September.

There are about 275,000 people trapped by the siege of eastern Aleppo, where civilians are suffering through daily bombing, including by bunker-buster and incendiary weapons, and through starvation, as limited supplies run out and aid convoys are blocked from the city.

On Friday 29 October the rebel forces started a new military operation, employing heavy shelling and suicide car bombs, was mainly focused on the city’s western edge by rebels based in the countryside outside Aleppo.

In the first three days of the operations the rebels were able to advance and seize new areas and their shelling on the regime-held areas killed 46 civlians at least including children.

However, the rebels’ attack was repelled in many fronts be Assad regime’s forces and the battles have slowed down after the fourth day.

The area has been subjected to a ferocious campaign of aerial attacks by Russian and Syrian government warplanes, and hundreds of people have been killed in recent weeks, according to opposition activists and trapped residents.

Recovering full control of the rebels’ last significant urban area would be the most important victory of the war so far for Assad, strengthening his control over Syria’s most populous and strategically important regions.