Russians talk with Syrian rebels as eastern Aleppo runs out of food
Deal under negotiation in Ankara involves ceasefire and opening of corridors for delivering humanitarian aid
Russian officials and Syrian rebel groups are holding talks in Turkey on the fate of east 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 a similar bargain to the one proposed in October by the UN envoy on the Syrian conflict, Staffan de Mistura. However, although the plight of east 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 east Aleppo that has caused mass civilian casualties. Russia is now perceived as having declining influence in Aleppo over regime forces 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.”
East Aleppo has been under siege for 150 days and has suffered increasingly heavy bombardment for several months. About 200,000 people are thought to be trapped there, 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 up to 8,000 rebel fighters left, of whom 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 back-channel dialogue in the region on Syria, 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 hundreds 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.”
Slim said that if the rebels decided to fight to the death, south-east Aleppo could perhaps hold out for some time as its defenders had constructed a network of tunnels and fortifications.
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 before Donald Trump took office as US president.