Plan for rebels and civilians to escape eastern Aleppo collapses as soon as it begins

A unilateral truce by Russia and Syria was supposed to enable residents of besieged, rebel-held neighbourhoods to cross over into government-held territory. But few people were willing to risk the journey, as Josh Wood reports.

Smoke rises from buildings in an eastern government-held neighbourhood of Aleppo following reported opposition fire on October 20, 2016. George Ourfalian/AFP
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BEIRUT // A plan to allow fighters and civilians to escape besieged, rebel-held eastern Aleppo through “humanitarian corridors” seemed to collapse as it began on Thursday morning, with clashes erupting at crossing points into government-controlled territory.

The unilateral ceasefire by Russia and the Syrian government was meant to last from 8am to 7pm, but Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu announced just before it was due to end that Moscow was extending its “humanitarian pause” by 24 hours. The United Nations meanwhile said it had received a pledge from Moscow to extend it until Saturday.

Both Russia and Syria halted air strikes on eastern Aleppo on Tuesday in preparation for the pause.

Despite the outbreak of fighting, the UN said it hoped medical evacuations from Aleppo could begin on Friday. The head of the UN’s humanitarian task force for Syria, Jan Egeland, said he believed the UN had “all the green lights” from Moscow, Damascus and the armed opposition to start evacuations.

The Syrian government blamed Thursday’s clashes on “terrorists,” with state-run news agency Sana reporting that the Bustan Al Qasr humanitarian corridor was targeted with rockets and snipers. The agency said hundreds of thousands of leaflets marking the humanitarian corridors were dropped by helicopter in rebel areas of Aleppo on Thursday.

A contributor to The National based in eastern Aleppo said several hundred residents had gathered at a crossing point in the Bustan Al Qasr neighbourhood on Thursday morning, but dispersed after the area was hit by mortar and sniper fire, resulting in injuries. As clashes erupted, rebel Free Syrian Army units closed off access to the area, saying it was too dangerous for civilians to pass.

It was not clear whether any civilians managed to leave Bustan Al Qasr, but Sana reported that “a number of [rebel] gunmen” had crossed at Bustan Al Qasr to have “their legal status settled”.

In the days leading up to the humanitarian pause, residents of eastern Aleppo were sceptical about the government’s intentions, despite the halt in Russian and Syrian air strikes. Facing low food stocks and an intensified bombing campaign since the siege was imposed in early September, many of the estimated 275,000 civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo now want to leave. But few wanted to be among the first to test the safety of the exit corridors.

Rebel groups – which were also offered safe passage out of eastern Aleppo provided they left their weapons behind – were quick to reject the offer as a ploy.

Live footage of crossing points broadcast by Russia’s defence ministry on Thursday showed little movement. A video feed from the Castello Road – a key supply route to the north-west of the city now controlled by the regime – showed only Syrian government troops milling around at a checkpoint that was decorated with Syrian and Russian flags and a portrait of president Bashar Al Assad. Another feed from Castello Road showed a column of buses and ambulances sitting idly.

At crossing points in Masharika district, streets were devoid of traffic and drone footage of the area showed lines of buses waiting for evacuees.

Thursday’s humanitarian pause faced criticism from the moment it was announced. Amid a food shortage, the UN has been eager to get aid into eastern Aleppo, but said Thursday’s window was too short. The brevity of the ceasefire also made civilians hoping to flee Aleppo wary.

International pressure to halt attacks by the Syrian government and Russia intensified on Thursday, with European Union leaders considering sanctions against “individuals and entities” supporting Mr Al Assad’s regime.

A draft statement called for “unhindered humanitarian access to Aleppo” as well as a cessation of hostilities and resumption of negotiations.

On Wednesday, US secretary of state John Kerry again warned Moscow and Damascus that their actions in the war were only making things worse.

“Every bomb that’s dropped by Russia and the Assad regime is radicalising more and more people,” he said.

Elsewhere in Syria, the Turkish government claimed to have killed between 160 and 200 Kurdish fighters in air strikes on Thursday against YPG positions north of Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based opposition monitoring group, gave a lower death toll, saying at least 11 fighters had been killed and 24 wounded.

Turkey intervened militarily in Syria in late August, backing rebel forces to drive ISIL from its border with Syria. However, Turkey has also turned its attention to the YPG, a group that has been the United States’ best ally on the ground against ISIL in Syria, but that Turkey considers to be a part of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkish-backed rebels and YPG forces are both pushing separately towards the ISIL-held town of Al Bab, raising the possibilities of a larger showdown.

While the Turkish-backed rebels are now tasked with fighting ISIL and the YPG, there are signs that they want to eventually confront regime troops and attempt to break the siege of eastern Aleppo.

* With additional reporting by Zouhir Al Shimale in Aleppo, Agence France-Presse and Reuters