Rebel forces have prevented civilians in the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo from fleeing the city through recently opened “humanitarian corridors,” according to a report from Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“Russia, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, on Thursday announced the opening of aid passages for civilians and surrendering fighters seeking to exit the city’s rebel-held eastern neighbourhoods,” says the report.
However, “entrances to the corridors were effectively shut in rebel areas inside the city on Friday,” claims the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Only a dozen civilians were able to exit through the humanitarian corridors before “rebel groups reinforced security measures and prevented families from approaching the corridors,” according to the Observatory.
Rebel leaders accused the Syrian government of attempting to “alter Aleppo’s demographics,” by which they mean removing the civilian populace so regime forces and their Russian allies can starve and bomb the rebels into submission.
Brutal conditions have been inflicted on rebel-held portions of Aleppo, with their supply lines effectively cut. The United Nations estimates that the besieged sectors of the city will effectively run out of food in mid-August.
The BBC cites U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sharing the position taken by the rebel groups, worrying that Russia’s humanitarian corridors could be a “ruse” that would risk “completely breaking apart” co-operation between the U.S. and Russia on striking ISIS positions in Syria.
“On the other hand, 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,” Kerry continued.
State Department spokesman John Kirby was much less equivocal than his boss, as quoted by Reuters: “This would appear to be a demand for the surrender of opposition groups and the evacuation of Syrian civilians from Aleppo. The innocent people of Aleppo should be able to stay in their homes safely, and to receive the humanitarian access.”
The BBC says the U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, expressed United Nations support for humanitarian corridors in principle.
“Our suggestion to Russia is to actually leave the corridors being established at their initiative to us. The UN and humanitarian partners know what to do,” said de Mistura. He also pointed out that it would be difficult for civilians to make use of the humanitarian corridors if there was “shelling, bombing, fighting” all around them.
France was strongly critical of Russia’s plan, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman explaining that “residents of Aleppo must be able to stay home in security and receive all the aid they need” under international humanitarian law.
“In this context, humanitarian corridors, which require residents of Aleppo to leave the city, do not represent a credible response to the situation,” the Foreign Ministry continued.
Russia’s RT.com was, naturally, critical of the criticism from the United States and France, insisting that Russia’s interests were purely humanitarian in nature.
Regarding the news of rebels preventing civilians from leaving, RT.com quotes an Aleppo resident, speaking from one of the aid stations that have been established along the exit corridors:
The government gave the opportunity for civilians to come here, but the rebels are not letting them. They are shooting at them. This is not acceptable. The rebels should let the civilians come here to avoid bloodshed. Those are our relatives, our people. If the civilians come here we can save the babies and the women. If the rebels want to fight they can fight, why include the civilians?
Several sources have noted that Russia is providing corridors out of Aleppo for rebel forces, including one for armed rebels. This is a rather clear indication that an endgame strategy is in place. Rolling up Aleppo would be a major achievement for the Assad regime and its Russian partners.
With civilians out of the way, the rebels are in big trouble–but when they are reportedly using force to keep civilians from leaving, it becomes difficult to refute the Syrian government’s portrayal of them as little more than terrorists seizing human shields.