Russian and Syrian warplanes have halted strikes on the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo a day before a brief humanitarian pause is set to begin.
Russia has called on rebel fighters and civilians to use the break in the bombing on Thursday to leave the rebel-controlled eastern side of the city.
But doubts have already been raised about the credibility of the brief 11-hour pause. The U.N. said it needs more time to get relief aid to survivors and the U.S. has suggested the pause may be “too little, too late.” Meanwhile, several residents of the besieged part of Aleppo say that leaving is not a real option and that they view the cease-fire as a media stunt.
“There is no sound of planes, but we can still hear shootings on the ground,” Wissam Zarqa, a teacher in Aleppo’s al-Mashhad neighborhood, told ABC News. “The government is still trying to advance. As long as fighting and clashes are ongoing it is not possible for civilians to leave. Some elderly people who can’t keep living under siege might want to leave but they can’t because it’s not safe.”
Even if he felt it was safe to leave, he would choose to stay, he said.
“We don’t feel like leaving our homes and becoming refugees,” he said. “None of my friends are considering leaving.”
Russia’s defense ministry announced the pause on Monday, saying it would open two corridors for fighters and six more for civilians. The ministry said that Syrian government troops would pull back to allow fighters to pass, and pledged to guarantee the safety of civilians leaving. The Kremlin has described the break as a “good will gesture.”
But the U.N. and aid agencies have said the pause is not long enough.
A U.N. humanitarian spokesperson said that while it welcomed any pause in the violence around Aleppo, more time was needed for relief workers to reach the city. U.N. officials also said Russia had not coordinated with them on the pause, providing no warning before announcing it.
“We will use whatever pause we have to do whatever we can,” Stephane Dujarric, a U.N. spokesman, told reporters in New York. “Obviously there is a need for a longer pause to get trucks in.”
The international aid group, Doctors Without Borders, also said the pause was too short to evacuate the wounded safely. Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N.’s humanitarian agency OCHA, said that without guarantees for humanitarian workers’ safety, it would be impossible for them to enter.
Today, Russia’s defense ministry said it would extend the pause from eight to 11 hours, ending it at 7 p.m. local time. The extension “will allow representatives of the United Nations and the Syrian Red Crescent to carry out all their operations to ensure the evacuation of the sick and wounded, and also to allow peaceful civilians out of the city,” said ministry spokesman Sergei Rudskoi.
But U.N. spokespeople have already said at least 48 hours is required for relief to reach people in eastern Aleppo and for a real evacuation of the wounded to take place.
Several rebel groups have already rejected Russia’s proposal to withdraw out-of-hand, saying on Tuesday it would amount to a surrender. “The factions completely reject any exit – this is surrender,” Zakaria Malahifji, the political officer of an Aleppo-based rebel group told AFP. Al-Farouk Abu Bakr, an Aleppo commander in the powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, also told AFP the rebels would fight on, rejecting Moscow’s claim that the city was occupied by terrorists.
Today Russia’s envoy to the UN in Geneva, Aleksei Borodavkin, condemned the rebels’ refusal to leave and accused them of keeping civilians in the city as “human shields.”
One analyst believes the pause may actually be Russia’s way of laying the groundwork for a more savage assault once it ends.
“This is Russia paving the way for the use of even more lethal force against Aleppo because it can claim that it gave civilians and moderates the chance to leave the city,” said Firas Abi Ali, an Middle East analyst for HIS Country Risk. “Obviously, this takes no account of people who have nowhere else to go, and of moderates who do not want to surrender Aleppo to Assad. I expect more severe and indiscriminate bombardment after the cease-fire.”
The scene of intense fighting since July, Aleppo is now undergoing an a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, according to the U.N. Intense bombardment from Russian and Syrian government planes has led to the destruction of hospitals, schools, roads and markets, severely affecting civilian access to water and electricity.
On Monday, 14 members of the same family, including eight children, were killed after their home was hit by an airstrike, according to activists in Aleppo and the White Helmets, a volunteer civil defense group that operates in rebel-held Syria. Humanitarian organizations have criticized the Syrian and Russian governments for the intense airstrikes and for reported use of chemical weapons and bunker-buster bombs, which can target people sheltering underground.
Russia and the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad argue Aleppo is occupied by terrorists, including hundreds of fighters from the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate recently rebranded as Fatah-al Sham. The U.N. has called for the 900 Nusra fighters it estimates to be in the city to leave. Nusra has rejected that offer, which other rebel groups also condemned as justifying Russia’s indiscriminate bombing.
Russia has accompanied the bombing pause with an announcement that it is now working to identify which groups can be considered unaffiliated with terrorist groups. Russia has previously disdained distinctions between moderate opposition groups and those deemed terrorists, but on Tuesday its defense minister, Sergey Shogu, said Russian experts were already in Geneva, Switzerland, working on the question with the U.N. and other countries that have sponsored the rebels. On Tuesday, the U.N. mediator for Syria, Steffan de Mistura, said he was not involved in the talks. The U.S. State Department said it had representatives in Geneva discussing Aleppo but would not say whether that included meeting with the Russians.
The U.S. and the U.K. have also both voiced skepticism about the pause, suggesting it is insufficient. Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, rejected the Russian plan as not credible. “A durable and convincing ceasefire must be delivered by the Assad regime before any such proposal can conceivably be made to work,” he said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Tuesday that a pause would “be a good thing” but that after months of “near-constant bombing” intended “to starve out and drive out the opposition and civilians,” it was a “bit too little, too late.”
Some observers have said they felt Russia was following a campaign-plan already employed in its own brutal war with Chechen separatists 16 years ago, when the Russian army leveled Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, turning it into a desolate shell with virtually every building destroyed.
Then, Russia offered a brief humanitarian pause allowing civilians and rebel fighters to leave, before shattering the city with bombing of renewed ferocity.
Source : ABC News: International