Russia Offers ‘Humanitarian Corridors’ Out Of Besieged Aleppo. History Warns Of A Trap

July 28, 2016
Aftermath of Russian air strike on rebel-held area of Aleppo on February 5. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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Russia Offers ‘Humanitarian Corridors’ Out Of Besieged Aleppo. History Warns Of A Trap

The Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, claimed today that four “humanitarian corridors” out of besieged eastern Aleppo are to be established by Russian and Syrian regime-allied forces. 

Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti reports that Shoigu said President Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime had ordered a “large-scale humanitarian relief operation for Aleppo.”

“In order to help the civilians who have found themselves hostages to terrorists, and also for militants who are willing to lay down their arms, the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria, together with the Syrian authorities, will open three humanitarian corridors.”

A fourth corridor, Shoigu said, would allow armed fighters to leave eastern Aleppo towards the Castello road – which was until two weeks ago, the last remaining lifeline in and out of rebel-held areas. Shoigu said that such a relief line had to be established because “our American partners have not provided us with data on the separation of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army.”

Josie Ensor, Middle East correspondent for The Telegraph reports that the UN special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has said he was not consulted by the Syrian or Russian governments about the Aleppo plan:

Yesterday Reuters reported that the Syrian regime was dropping leaflets on the besieged area of the city, where nearly 300,000 people are trapped with dwindling supplies and subjected to daily bombardment by the Russian and Syrian air forces, telling residents to lay down their arms. SMS text messages were sent out across the Aleppo area on Tuesday with the same message.

Haaretz reports that the regime has also introduced a decree offering an amnesty to surrendering rebels:

Assad, meanwhile, issued a decree offering an amnesty to armed opposition fighters who surrender within three months and urging all detainees to be freed. The decree, which was published by the state-run news agency SANA, said that those who might set free their captives will be exempted from punishment if they turn themselves in within a month.

Assad has issued amnesty offers several times in the past in the course of Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year. The offer is largely seen by opposition fighters as a publicity stunt and psychological warfare against the rebels.

Today either Russian or Syrian air force planes have dropped small packages of supplies, much of it apparently Russian, over eastern Aleppo:

It is barely worth saying that hand-wringing over the humanitarian situation in Aleppo on the part of the forces that have been devastating the city daily, killing huge numbers of civilians, is grotesque.

Just this morning, the Syrian Local Coordination Committees (LCC) reported air strikes with thermobaric weapons on two northern suburbs of Aleppo, while yesterday regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the Bab al-Hadid and Aqyoul neighbourhoods in the heart of Aleppo city, wounding dozens.

But it is even more important to note that Russia’s offers of “humanitarian corridors” have a grim history.

Shoigu himself was in charge of organizing such corridors for civilian refugees fleeing Grozny during the Second Chechen War while he was the minister for emergency situations.

On December 3, 1999, at least 40 civilians, travelling in vehicles marked with white flags, were shot dead by Russian troops.

More recently, “humanitarian corridors” in Ukraine proved to be traps.

On August 18, 2014, at least 15 civilians were killed when a refugee convoy, moving through a corridor out of Lugansk, offered by Russian-backed forces, was shelled with Grad rockets 

At the end of the month, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were killed or captured while trying to leave Ilovaisk.

Putin himself had publicly appealed to the “Novorossiya militia” to open a humanitarian corridor for the Ukrainian forces. Of course, the troops besieging the town were in fact most Russian regular forces under his command. The puppet leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zaharchenko, gave his consent.

After receiving assurances that they would receive safe passage, the Ukrainians began to move out.

Instead, what ensued was a massacre; they were ambushed by artillery and tanks. Over the next few days waves of Ukrainian fighters attempted to break out of the “kettle,” suffering terrible losses.

As Ukrainian journalist Ruslan Yarmolyuk wrote at the time:

“This morning according to the agreement about the corridor which fighters are to open outside Ilovaisk, the remainders of the 40th battalion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the 39th, the 28th and the remnants of the 51st brigade of Vladimir-Volynskaya went into the corridor and were shelled by heavy artillery and mortars. The Russian beasts swept from the earth everything that went through the corridor, both vehicles and personnel of the Ukrainian army and part of the volunteer battalions. None of them have gotten in touch and have not reached the gathering place! From yesterday’s reinforcement, which went to Ilovaisk, made up of 30 vehicles, not a single one got out; of 300 men, by preliminary information, no more than 10 remain alive! That’s it, make your conclusions!”

Gosha Tikhiy, a Ukrainian journalist who was reporting from Ilovaisk for Germany’s ARD and fled with several other reporters under fire, tweets: 

Furthermore, in the summer of 2014, when Russia simultaneously sent “humanitarian convoys” of trucks, purportedly carrying aid, and columns of tanks and troops into Ukraine, Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy noted that the Kremlin had vociferously opposed any attempts to establish humanitarian corridors in Syria.

Russia had long blocked any attempts to alleviate the situation in Syria, even before the current military intervention began in September last year. 

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Jul 28, 2016 12:40 (GMT)

Today’s announcement brings little hope for Aleppo.

Many civilians (and even more rebel fighters) will be unwilling to risk death or detention on the routes out offered by their besiegers. Those who remain will then be subjected to an even more brutal all-out assault, while the Kremlin will claim that those who did not take up the offer of safe passage are all irreconcilable militants.

— Pierre Vaux