MESOP “INSIDE ALEPPO TODAY” BY ANNE BARNARD – NEW YORK TIMES / Wary of Russian Guarantees, Residents Stay Put in War-Torn Aleppo
By ANNE BARNARD – OCT. 20, 2016 -BEIRUT, Lebanon — Russia billed its brief, unilateral cease-fire as a good-will gesture, a chance for weary rebel fighters and civilians to escape besieged areas in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
But during the 11-hour window on Thursday, there were few takers. People trapped in east Aleppo said they did not trust that Russia, which has been helping the Syrian government bomb them for months, would now keep them safe in designated “humanitarian corridors.”“All the human corridors that the regime is promoting, are all lies,” Bassem Ayoud, an antigovernment activist, said via an internet message. “What’s happening is an extermination of people.”
Whether to stay or go has long been a life-or-death choice for the residents of east Aleppo, who number 275,000, the United Nations estimates, including around 8,000 fighters.Many said in interviews they wanted to stay to hold on to their homes, or to continue to resist the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Others say they would consider leaving if they did not fear new dangers along the journey, at the destination, or both.
Yet staying means subjecting themselves to more of the airstrikes that have devastated the city — hitting hospitals, schools and apartment buildings, and killing hundreds in the last few weeks alone — since a brief cease-fire, negotiated by the United States and Russia, broke down in September.
“The regime threatens people to kill all of them if they decide to stay,” said Yasser al-Hmeish, an accountant for the area’s medical council. “How can anyone leave without United Nations guarantees?”
On Thursday, pro-government and rebel forces accused each other of preventing people from leaving Aleppo. The Syrian state news media said “terrorists” had attacked one of the crossing points, or humanitarian corridors, designated by Russia. Rebels and civilian residents said clashes erupted there overnight after government forces tried to advance.
Yet there was no way to know how many people would have attempted the crossing, even if it had been possible.
“All civilians are ready to leave, and rebels are not stopping them,” said Mr. Ayoud. But, he added, everyone is afraid to be the first to head for the exits. Safe routes had been declared before, but people who tried to use them came under fire.Officials from the United Nations said on Thursday afternoon that Russia had pledged to provide additional 11-hour windows over at least three more days, and to allow participation by humanitarian agencies.
The United Nations and other international powers that have called for the protection of civilians have not yet resorted to requiring people to leave their homes for safety and to receive aid. Doing so would be a violation of international law, the United Nations says. But it may be the only way to save lives, with Russia and the Syrian government bombing besieged areas, and claiming it is justified by the presence of the Qaeda-linked fighters of the Levant Conquest Front, formerly known as the Nusra Front. Those fighters, said to make up several hundred of the 8,000 in east Aleppo, have so far refused an offer from the United Nations special envoy to Syria to be bused out with their weapons. Two weeks ago, he proposed that, in exchange, Damascus would allow self-government in eastern Aleppo — a provision neither Moscow nor Damascus has shown any inclination to accept, seeking instead to subdue all opposition.
Families in Aleppo weighed their options as the United Nations said Russia had agreed that, in the coming days, the pauses would coincide with the delivery of international aid, the evacuation of the wounded, and additional oversight by the Red Crescent and United Nations agencies.The special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the cease-fire as an opportunity to bring medical relief to Aleppo. But during remarks to reporters in Geneva, he stressed that the Russian offer fell well short of the cessation of hostilities he had proposed in an attempt to avert the destruction of rebel-held parts of the city.
Russia had initially proposed that the cease-fire last eight hours a day for four days starting on Thursday, but it agreed on Wednesday to extend the pause to 11 hours each day after the United Nations said the time allowed was too short to conduct humanitarian operations, said Jan Egeland, the United Nations special adviser on humanitarian affairs.
The Kremlin, for its part, said both it and Damascus had agreed to open the window for another day, and to extend the pause further — but only if it were not used for rebel fighters to move, regroup or seek military advantage. Video posted online from both sides of the front showed the challenges that civilians face. From inside, the areas said to be safe routes appeared to be forbidding, deserted stretches of destroyed and abandoned buildings. Pro-government news outlets and cameras live-streaming on a Russian government website showed the government-held sides of two of the corridors. There, any rebel or civilian exiting rebel-held territory would be greeted by Syrian government and Russian flags and troops. One video showed a mortar shell landing with a loud crack, and smoke billowing from the impact point near the road where the evacuation buses were waiting. Hisham Skeif, a member of a local council in eastern Aleppo that includes both civilians and fighters, said he was surprised more people had not attempted the crossing on Thursday, despite those obstacles.
“We expected 20 or 25 families to try to leave,” he said.
He said some people’s minds were changed when they saw the detailed instructions, printed on leaflets dropped from the air, that explained how to behave on the way out so as not to get shot by security forces. “It gave them an idea what might be waiting for them on the other side,” he said.
But Zakaria Malahifji, the political chief of a rebel group, based in Turkey and backed by the C.I.A., said he was not surprised.“The results are already known,” he said. “No one left and no one is going to leave, neither civilians nor fighters.”Calling the pause “a joke,” he said it had never been intended to work, given that clashes were going on at a main crossing point.
“But,” he added, “we still welcome a real truce that guarantees cease-fire and humanitarian aid entry.”
Follow Anne Barnard on Twitter @ABarnardNYT.