Civilian Deaths Mount In Aleppo While UN Considers Role In Russian “Humanitarian Corridors”

August 5, 2016
Sakir Khader reported on Twitter this morning: "Heavy airstrikes killed at least 10 Syrians this morning in Al-Marja. 7 of them were children under the age of 8."

LIVE UPDATES: The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Major Assad Artillery Base Reportedly Falls To Syrian Rebels In Aleppo

Rebel victory could change course of entire war

Just days ago, Syria’s rebels in Aleppo city were completely surrounded and it looked as if the Syrian regime would recapture the city, dealing the anti-Assad forces a major blow. Now, the tables appear to be turning. Multiple opposition sources, many of which have proven to be consistently reliable, indicate that the Ramouseh artillery academy and military base, perhaps the most important Assad military installation in all of northern Syria, has fallen to a coalition of rebel forces.

The latest news indicates that the base may not have completely fallen to rebel groups, however. There is a good possibility that the base may very well fall completely to the rebels soon.

Beyond this, the base has played a major role in the regime’s efforts to hold at least part of Aleppo city and the rest of Aleppo province. As I wrote on Monday:

The Ramouseh artillery base and academy was the key to maintaining some control in Aleppo for the Assad regime between the summer of 2012 and today. The artillery units there were crucial to intimidating protesting students, and later in the regime’s efforts to flatten the Hamadaniyah and Salah el Din districts just north of the base. The artillery turned regime strongholds into death traps, transforming the battle for Aleppo into a game of inches waged by snipers, artillery, and aircraft. Since regime forces were often outnumbered over the course of those years, this leveled the playing field.

With the base apparently in the possession of Syria’s rebels, the entire Assad position in northern Syria may be too tenuous to maintain. The fact that the Russian airforce, assisted by Russian ground troops and tanks, Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias from Iraq, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commandos were unable to help Assad hold the rebels back is testament to how weak the Assad regime really is, and to the latent strength of the Syrian opposition.

Al-Qaeda’s role

The breaking of the siege of Aleppo will be heralded by many who were concerned about the endless attacks on civilians by the Assad and Russian air forces. But the rebel victory has a dark side as well. Forces aligned with Al-Qaeda played a prominent role in the capture of this base and the wider rebel counteroffensive on southwestern Aleppo city. Particularly noteworthy has been the role of the AQ-syndicate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. While Fateh al-Sham has changed its name and formally disavowed connections to Al-Qaeda, no one should be fooled into thinking that those ideological, and perhaps even logistical and organizational, ties do not exist. 

“Inghimashi” is an Arabic word for suicide-fighters, shock troops willing to attack positions despite certainty of death. Often these inghimashi are armed with suicide vests. Such soldiers, as well as the use of tunnel bombs, appear to have played a major role in the destruction of Assad’s positions near the front lines of this offensive.

Just yesterday, August 4, David Patrikarakos wrote for RFE/RL about the dangers of Al-Qaeda linked groups playing a major role in this fight:

If these reports [of the rebel advance in Aleppo] are true — or if the rebels are able to make minor gains or at least maintain the status quo in the city — then once again it will be Jabhat Fatah al-Sham that benefits the most. In leading the charge to rescue the besieged population while the world looks on, it will have irretrievably bound itself to the armed opposition in Northern Syria. 

And that is a scenario that benefits no one — not the mainstream rebels and most of all, not Syria’s long-suffering people.

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Analysis: Why The Battle For Aleppo Could Change The Direction Of The War In Syria

The Syrian civil war is as confusing and opaque as it is sadistic and bloody. On one side stands Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a barbarous tyrant backed by Iran and Russia, Hizbullah, and Shi'ite militias from Iraq, the remnants of the Syrian army, and the odd Kurdish splinter group.

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Aug 05, 2016 20:06 (GMT)

The attack was spearheaded by Jaish al-Fatah, the umbrella organization which includes groups like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham. 
However, it is still important to keep perspective. Al-Qaeda may have played a major role in this fight, but they were cooperating with many other rebel groups. As Syria expert Hassan Hassan points out, despite the claims of certain foreign policy pundits, there remains a distinction between these groups for a reason. 
James Miller
Civilian Deaths Mount In Aleppo While UN Considers Role In Russian “Humanitarian Corridors”
Roy Gutman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former McClatchy Middle East bureau chief who is currently a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

Since July 28 he has been relaying reports from sources inside besieged Aleppo.  Here is his latest dispatch:

Report from Besieged Aleppo, Thursday Aug 4, Day 25

MORE AIRSTRIKES: Regime or Russian warplanes carried out airstrikes 12 neighborhoods of rebel-held East Aleppo Thursday as regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on four neighborhoods, killing 14 civilians and wounding 100 more, the opposition Mazar press agency reported.  

REBEL PRESS OFFENSIVE:  According to Mazar, rebels Thursday captured big parts of the village of Al Amrya south of Aleppo. Rebels fired mortars and rockets in a renewal of their offensive against the government-held artillery school in southwest Aleppo, but rebel mortars also were falling over crowded residential areas in government held sectors.  The official SANA news agency said seven residents were killed Wednesday and 41 wounded in regime-held neighborhoods of al-Jamiliya, Ramousah and Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhoods in Aleppo.

AIRSTRIKES TARGET IDP CAMPS:  Al Atarib, a town west of Aleppo that’s been a prime target of Russian and regime air attacks for the past 10 days, came under renewed airstrikes Thursday. Five civilians were killed, among them two children and more than 25 wounded, in airstrikes that targeted camps for the internally displaced in Ma’arrat Al Atarib on the outskirts of Atarib. Residents said the warplanes conducted 11 strikes, nine with thermobaric bombs and the other two with cluster munitions on the IDP camps.  

Al Atarib nominally has a population of 50,000, but 40,000 have fled following the bombardment of the past week, residents said. Thousands now live in makeshift camps under the stars with no support from international NGO’s, residents said.

Update on Wednesday’s air attacks on six trucks, identified said to be as delivering food  to Al Atarib. In fact two were carrying fuel and the other four were carrying raw cotton for industry to Ma’arrat Al Na’asan, a neighboring town. The Al Atarib Local Coordination Committee said the attack was deliberate, as it took nine raids by the warplanes to destroy the entire convoy and kill the six drivers.

US SURPRISED BY RUSSIAN MOVES: The State Department said the Russian and Syrian government air assault on Aleppo makes the “dynamic difficult” for collaboration with Moscow in the fight against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate that says it’s broken with Al Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. “The fact that the Russians supported the regime in its attempt to seal off and retake Aleppo, unbeknownst to us, has not made those efforts to work together on finding a way forward any easier,”  said spokesman Mark Toner Thursday. But he said progress had been made in the talks, and “we are still talking.”

UN REJECTS RUSSIAN PLAN: UN representative Jan Egeland rejected Russia’s week-old plan to set up “humanitarian corridors” to empty the rebel-held part of the city of civilians and fighters.  “A humanitarian corridor has to be two-ways,” Egeland said in Geneva Thursday. “There has to be unimpeded access for humanitarian supplies in, and it’s not happening to Aleppo now. Also, voluntary evacuation of civilians, plus wounded and sick, should take place to the places of their choosing and where they feel safe. So indeed we do not have classical humanitarian corridors at all, in Aleppo.”  He also said the number of civilians leaving “is, to my knowledge, very limited so far.” Egeland also said that the UN had hoped to deliver food aid to 1.2 million people in besieged or hard-to-reach areas in July, but in fact reached only 40 per cent.  

— Roy Gutman

More airstrikes were reported this morning in the Marja area of eastern Aleppo:

The Syrian Local Coordination Committees (LCC) report further casualties in the nearby Tariq Bab neighborhood, where Syrian regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs.

Elsewhere in Aleppo this morning, several journalists, including reporters from Al Jazeera and Orient News, were wounded, when a nearby rebel tank was hit by an air strike.

The LCC also reports another two Russian air strikes on al-Atarib. The second attack reportedly killed four civilians.

Against this backdrop of ongoing devastation, it’s hard to remember that the Russian “humanitarian corridors” have officially been in operation for a week now.

Today Kareem Shaheen reports for The Guardian on UN deliberations on cooperating with the Russians and opposition from aid groups:

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Syria: UN considers role in Russia's 'deeply flawed' humanitarian corridors plan

The United Nations is considering overseeing a Russian proposal to create humanitarian corridors for civilians who wish to leave besieged Aleppo, despite strong opposition from aid organisations.

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Aug 05, 2016 11:50 (GMT)

— Pierre Vaux