The Syrian and Russian governments are seeking to end the insurgent presence in Aleppo before the end of the year, an official Syrian source has told The Irish Times.
This is because there is serious concern in Damascus about a potential change in US policy towards Syria when a new president moves into the White House in January. Hillary Clinton is viewed as having a more hawkish approach to foreign policy than Barack Obama, while Donald Trump’s stance, should he be elected, is impossible to predict.
However, securing all of Aleppo may not be possible because of civilians remaining there and the refusal of insurgent groups to evacuate or allow civilians to depart, regime sources argue.
“To make it easy for civilians and fighters to leave, the army has announced a reduction in air strikes and shelling and offered to open two corridors for four hours a day,” said Brig Gen Sameer Suleiman, head of the information section in the Syrian political administration.
The army’s announcement coincided with a rapid advance by it into the Bustan al-Basha (Garden of the Pasha) neighbourhood and the seizure of other strategic locations, doubling pressure on insurgents to end their presence in east Aleppo.
The army has pledged not to harm civilians, to grant amnesty to fighters prepared to lay down their arms and to permit those who want to continue the struggle to go to nearby Idlib province, which is held almost entirely the rebel Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that half the civilians living in eastern Aleppo want to leave due to the lack of clean water, food and security. Women, especially, fear for the health and lives of their children.
However, insurgents controlling the eastern districts are divided, a source who was recently there says. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and its chief ally Ahrar al-Sham are determined to stay and oppose the departure of civilians.
However, fighters from smaller groups want to leave and either go to Idlib or opt for amnesty. They have not so far been able to overcome the rejection of the two largest and most powerful groups, which dominate the armed opposition.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has put the overall number of fighters in eastern Aleppo at 8,000, with 900 of them being from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. He has called on that group’s fighters to leave rather than risk the lives of 275,000 civilians. He also called on Moscow and Damascus to halt aerial bombing if the group departs. Damascus and Moscow argue the group’s radical allies must also evacuate.
Elia Samman, an activist involved in the campaign to negotiate peaceful withdrawals of insurgents from urban areas, said the biggest obstacle to this effort was foreign intervention. Once the connection between foreign sponsors and insurgents was cut, it became “easy to negotiate” a deal, dubbed “reconciliation” by the government, he said.
Samman said advances by the army promote this process while “demonstrations against [the presence of] fighters . . . show civilians have turned against them”. Protests have taken place recently in Qudsaya near Damascus, where negotiations are ongoing. Protesters were not necessarily pro-government, Samman said, but the presence of foreign fighters complicated this effort. “Syrians are easier to convince.”
While powerful groups of insurgents opposed “reconciliation”, the army had also been reluctant to allow militants to go to fight elsewhere or to accept amnesty, Samman said. Commanders and soldiers do not want to free fighters who killed and wounded relatives and comrades.
Hell of war
Unicef representative in Syria Hanna Singer said the situation in Aleppo was “terrible”. Of the 1.5 million in the western, government-held areas, 300,000 were repeatedly displaced families who moved from place to place “with nothing but their clothes. Everything has to be provided for them.”
After spending a week in Aleppo, she said conditions were worse in eastern Aleppo, where 100,000 children are estimated to live and which has been under heavy Syrian and Russian bombardment. However, inhabitants of the western quarters are also suffering from mortars, intermittent interruptions to water supply and high prices of food and fuel.
Some adults there have taken their own lives and at least one mother has made a failed attempt to to kill her baby so she could “go to heaven” rather than remain in the hell of war, Singer said.
Children on both sides of the city are traumatised. During her visit to Aleppo, Singer attended an entertainment for children who initially were wary of music and took time to get used to it, to free their minds from the sounds of war, and dance.
Children also took part in the planting of olive trees bearing cards inscribed with the names of family members or friends who had died or fled the country in an exercise designed to help them cope emotionally with their losses.
“The only way out [of this war] is national reconciliation,” Samman said.
So far, the government and opposition – both political and armed – and the external sponsors of the two sides cannot agree on terms for such a reconciliation.