Rome–Vladimir Putin’s Defense Minister has announced that Syrian forces loyal President Bashar al-Assad will let civilians leave through three corridors, and rebels through another, to escape besieged districts of Aleppo. We have seen this movie before.
It is the same tactic Russian used when its air and ground forces were besieging Grozny, capital of the breakaway province of Chechnya back in 1999 and early 2000, while trying to flush out Islamic rebels from the city. This permitted Moscow to declare Grozny a free-fire zone, all the better to batter the already ruined city and deal less with the messy business of killing civilians and fighting door-to-door with insurgents.
From videos of Aleppo, the eastern parts of the city are in ruins. About 300,000 civilians still reside there. The rebels are mostly grouped under an Islamic alliance known as the Ahrar al-Sham. The corridor suggests that the final assault, with Russian jet bombers backing Syrian troop, and pro-Assad Lebanese and Iranian forces, is on the way. Please note that the invitation to leave does not mean the bombng and artillery fire stops in the meantime. One day when I was in Grozny back in 1999, Russian artillery pounded the city at a rate of a hell every three seconds. Some reports say the insurgents are prohibiting a civilian exodus.
Re-conquering all of Aleppo–the government controls the western areas of the city–would boost Assad’s chances of staying in power. Aleppo is the North’s commercial hub and Syria’s largest city. It once had a population of 2.3 million, though hundreds of thousands have fled. It has already been badly battered by Assad and Putin’s air force and now faces a siege that could totally cut off food supplies to rebel held areas–a frequently-used Assad starvation tactic.
All this going on while Secretary of State John Kerry tries fruitlessly to get Russia to stop bombing and help put a ceasefire in place. With the big Aleppo prize on the horizon, a stop to the killing is unlikely and the Obama Administraiton has zero influence on either Putin or Assad.
The whole Grozny evacuation episode was murky. Civilians did flee successfully through a corridor and the city was largely flattened. Then, in January, rebels left Grozny, supposedly with Russian acquiescence. Their escape route, though, ran through a mine field. Islamist insurgent leader Shamil Basayev hit one and his right foot was amputated in the village of Alkhan-Kala. Nonetheless, he escaped in a van through Russian lines and lived to fight on until 2006, when he was killed by the explosion of a carelessly handled mine. In the meantime, he masterminded numerous terrorist attacks on civilians inside Russia–a lesson, perhaps, of the possible ramifications for Syria of the coming conquest of Aleppo.
Jazeera on the siege.
Syria Comment on the significance of Aleppo.