The US and Russian dispute over relief proposal for besieged Aleppo

2 August 2016 – RUDAW – As the Syrian Civil War rages on, the government opposition stronghold in the city of Aleppo has become surrounded by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces which are cutting off rebel supply routes and creating a humanitarian crisis which is unprecedented in this war to date. This has resulted in a rise in tensions among international supporters of both, regime and opposition forces, particularly the United States and Russia.The city’s encirclement leads to a very complex logistical question concerning the administration of relief aid to those trapped inside the besieged city, and also whether or not the proposal on how to provide this relief is ethical.

All three parties: the US, Russia, and the Assad regime agree that aid must be distributed and both Syrian and Russian forces have proposed open humanitarian corridors for people to flee the besieged city of Aleppo, officials from both countries said last Thursday.Russia has proposed a large-scale humanitarian operation consisting of three relief corridors that would be set up for distributing food and medical aid to civilians, providing them with the opportunity to leave the city. Also, according to Russia’s Ministry of Defense, rebels who choose to surrender can use these passages as well. In addition, a fourth corridor is to be established in northern Aleppo to allow for the withdrawal of armed insurgents designed to spare civilians from further violence.

People in Aleppo were informed of Russia’s proposal by leaflets air-dropped over the city.

According to a CNN report, Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu said the joint relief operation was undergoing “to ensure the safety of the residents of Aleppo,” in order to deal with “a complex humanitarian situation”. However, the US Embassy in Syria has accused the Syrian government of using the aid as a means to coerce the rebels into surrendering and criticized Russia for possibly condoning it. “It has the risk, if it is a ruse, of completely breaking apart the level of cooperation,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said in response to a reporter’s question in a meeting with the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister.

If the US Embassy’s accusations are accurate regarding Syrian and Russian intentions to use relief aid as a means of coercion, then it could be in violation of international humanitarian relief law.With respect to a besieged city, there is no requirement under international law to allow the civilians to leave or to keep them inside that city. They attacking side may, of course, decide to do either if they wish, but they are not required either way.

But in regards to the use of food as an incentive to surrender, the legalities are much more complicated. Article 14 of the 2nd additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions (which applies during civil wars) reads as follows: “Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited. It is therefore prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless, for that purpose, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”

Another relevant article under the Geneva Conventions is Article 18(2) which reads:

“If the civilian population is suffering undue hardship owing to a lack of the supplies essential for its survival, such as foodstuffs and medical supplies, relief actions for the civilian population which are of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature and which are conducted without any adverse distinction shall be undertaken subject to the consent of the High Contracting Party concerned.”However, there is no clear international consensus if the 2nd protocol is binding international law. Nor is their consensus on any additional possible rules and limitation on this issue.Either way, this is a “grey” area in international law, and remains to be disputed even among today’s top international law experts.In the meantime, opposition forces seem to have united and show no signs of letting up. These groups include Ahrar al-Sham, Turkestan Islamic Party, Jabhat Fath al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), Ajnad al-Sham, and the Islamic Front. In fact, rebel groups claimed on Sunday July 31 to be within one kilometer of breaking the government’s siege of eastern Aleppo in an operation launched.

To prepare for Russian and Syrian planes carrying out airstrikes, people have been burning tires in Aleppo in order to create a smokescreen. As Syrian activist Wissam Zarqa confirmed to Associated Press, residents of the rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo had started the fires to reduce visibility over the city. Despite advances from the opposition, the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that tens of families left rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo and had reached Salah-Eddin neighborhood where they were received by the Syrian army.However, Aleppo-based opposition activist Baraa al-Halaby denied the state media reports claiming, “This is a game by the regime. Not a single person left.”

Al-Halaby went on to say that “the regime wants to say that civilians have left in order to burn Aleppo.”

Yet, the Syrian government still claims to be facilitating the reception of those coming to the corridors.

Approximately 275,000 people are believed to still be trapped in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo. Without the required aid, food supplies are expected to run out by mid-August.

The US has described the Russian proposal for humanitarian corridors as an apparent demand for opposition groups to surrender, accusing Russia of permitting Syria to use humanitarian aid to coerce opposition forces into giving up control of the city to the Syrian regime. On 29 of July, the US Embassy tweeted a statement saying that “Russia and the regime are using provision of food and aid as incentives to abandoning the city to regime control.”The Embassy went on to call for “immediate and unfettered” access to all the besieged areas and added that if Russia does not commit to the principles in the cessations of hostilities, “US-Russia cooperation would not be possible”.However, Kerry did mention room for compromise. “On the other hand,” he said “if we’re able to work it out today and have a complete understanding of what is happening and then agreement on the way forward, it could actually open up some possibilities.” www.mesop.de