A fact which suggests that the balance of military advantage is once again shifting against the rebels in ‘the Great Battle of Aleppo’ is a media storm that has appeared centred on a picture of a dazed 5 year old boy identified as Omran Daqneesh who has been pulled out of the rubble apparently following a bomb strike in eastern Aleppo.
This picture, which is on the front page of all of today’s broadsheet British newspapers, comes shortly after a signed letter from doctors based in rebel held eastern Aleppo pleading for US President Obama to come to their rescue.
Meanwhile Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, is demanding a 48 hour ceasefire in and around Aleppo, thereby implicitly rejecting a Russian offer of daily 3 hour ceasefires and humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to leave rebel held eastern Aleppo.
Latest reports suggest that he has suspended the UN’s humanitarian task force in Syria and stopped a meeting to discuss humanitarian access to Aleppo after just 8 minutes, apparently saying that it made “no sense” to plan aid deliveries when they would not be let into besieged areas.
It is an unfortunate and bitter truth that past experience of the Syrian and other conflicts has taught one to be deeply skeptical of calls and campaigns of this sort. The trouble is that they tend to coincide with reports that whatever side the West is supporting in any particular war is losing the war or is at least losing an important battle in the war.
By contrast when there is a threat of a humanitarian disaster caused by militaries the West is supporting the Western media tends to have little or nothing to say about it.
Recent examples include the Ukrainian army’s sieges of Donetsk and Lugansk during the fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014, and the humanitarian disaster currently underway in Yemen, caused by the ongoing Saudi military intervention there.
In the case of ‘the Great Battle of Aleppo’, when reports circulated a week ago that the rebels had punched a hole through the government’s lines, the Western media trumpeted a great victory, claiming the ‘siege of Aleppo’ (they rarely say ‘rebel held eastern Aleppo’) had been broken. There were even some claims that the rebels were on the brink of capturing (or “liberating”) the whole city.
As it has become increasingly clear that those claims were premature, concerns about a humanitarian crisis in Aleppo have mounted in their place.
Now that there are credible reports of Syrian army troops gaining ground in southwestern Aleppo and of the rebels in the Aleppo countryside suffering heavy losses as result of the Russian bombing, the expressions of outrage from the Western media and the demands for a 48 hour ceasefire have risen to a roar.
Inevitably this has raised concerns in some quarters that this could all be a prelude to a US bombing campaign. Certainly there are some people in the US who want that. However I suspect that the US military and Obama himself will act quickly to scotch that idea – if it exists – knowing perfectly well that it would lead to a potentially dangerous confrontation with the Russians and would be deeply unpopular with the US public in the run up to the November election if it were ever put into effect.
More probably the intention behind the campaign is to try to shame the Russians into calling a halt to their bombing and to the Syrian army’s counter-attack in south western Aleppo. De Mistura is already calling for a “gesture of humanity from both sides”, which should be seen as principally addressed to the Russians, since he surely knows that the rebel Jihadis would not heed it.
The extent to which the Russians will bend before this campaign is another matter. On 11th August 2016 the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement detailing the steps the Russians say they are taking to provide humanitarian assistance to Aleppo. The statement already then complained that
‘…..the humanitarian disaster (in Aleppo) is deliberately being played up. However, the fact that a large-scale humanitarian operation is being carried out in Aleppo, including with Russia’s assistance, is obscured.”
During a joint press conference on 15th August 2016 with German Foreign Steinmeier in Yekaterinburg Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov appeared to rule out the UN proposal for a 48 hour ceasefire, saying
“the main issue is not that there’s anyone unwilling to alleviate the humanitarian situation, but it is of utmost importance that terrorists would not be getting reinforced with militants, guns and munition supplies under the humanitarian aid disguise”.
Lavrov then pointed out that whenever Moscow and Washington have managed to enforce 48-hour or 72-hour ceasefires in various parts of Syria before
“the main results of those pauses was an insignificant relief in the humanitarian situation, while terrorists added 7,000 people to their ranks, not to mention huge amounts of arms and munitions they received.”
The Russians however have never wanted to appear unresponsive to humanitarian concerns. The Russian military have therefore said that they would be willing to look at de Mistura’s proposal for a 48 hour ceasefire. However it seems that this ceasefire will not happen before next week – giving the Syrian army time to consolidate its recent gains – and that UN humanitarian convoys to Aleppo will have to pass through special corridors and checkpoints controlled by the Syrian government.
General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defence Ministry’s spokesman, has described how the ceasefire would work
“We expect that realisation of this initiative will imply the delivery of humanitarian aid to both to the eastern part of Aleppo that is under militia control, as well as to the western part of the city, controlled by government forces, using two different routes. The first route from the Turkish city of Gaziantep through the border checkpoint that was established by the UN SC resolution 2165, then by Castello road to the eastern part of Aleppo. The other route will be using the road to the east of Aleppo that encircles the city from the northeast to Handarat and then by Castello road to the western part of the city.”
In other words the humanitarian deliveries will take place via the Castello road, which is controlled by the Syrian army, and not through any rebel controlled corridors or territories, and will be for the whole city, not just the rebel controlled parts of it.
Konashenkov has also said the Russians would assume responsibility for inspection mechanisms to ensure that the aid convoys only carry humanitarian supplies and not military supplies for the rebels besieged in the eastern suburbs of the city
“the Russian Defence Ministry is ready to exert additional effort to enhance efficiency of mechanisms of examination and ensuring the security of UN convoys heading to East Aleppo. This will help to lower the concerns of the Syrian government about the content of delivered goods and remove the necessity of a detailed examination of the convoys by the government forces. The representatives of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation will exercise any help to the Syrian troops during the passage of the convoy’s through the checkpoints before entering Aleppo.”
There are uncertainties about these proposals. For example it is not clear whether Russian bombing in the Aleppo countryside (where most of the bombing is actually taking place) would be affected by the ceasefire. On balance it seems not.
Overall these look like reasonable proposals that offer a practical solution to the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. Importantly they provide help impartially to people in both government and rebel controlled areas of the city. They appear to be based on the Russians’ previous proposal for humanitarian corridors to the besieged areas of the city, which were set up to allow civilians to leave the city.
Whether these proposals will however satisfy the media in the West – or indeed will even be reported there – is another matter, and remains to be seen.