Saturday, 17 December 2016

The Rescue of Aleppo is Not All it Seems

As Syrian forces move into East Aleppo today, the world is waiting to see the death toll from the final assault on the formerly rebel held district. The city of Aleppo has been roughly divided between the government held forces in the west and the rebel militias in the East since 2012. After weeks of incessant fighting and Russian air raids, forces loyal to Assad are now in reach of ending the siege of East Aleppo, leaving many civilians unable to flee and fearing for their lives.

Despite an initial breakdown of the first ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey, only hours after it was implemented on Wednesday, the announcement today of another ceasefire and the beginning of evacuations by the Red Cross has brought some relief to the volatile situation.

Thin Green Line

According to the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), which is overseeing the evacuation with the Syrian Arm of the Red Crescent, the full evacuation of East Aleppo may take several days. The United Nations has previously stated that there was an estimated 250,000 civilians in East Aleppo with roughly 100,000 being children. However, many are believed to have fled to the government controlled western side of the city and this is hindering calculation of exact evacuee numbers.

Thursday’s evacuations have managed to rescue some 3000 plus civilians but the evacuations will be ongoing throughout the night and following days according to the ICRC. A fleet of 13 ambulances and a fleet of 20 green buses will move those in danger 21 kilometres into the Adlib province which is currently controlled by rebel forces.

The head of the Russian military's General Staff, Gen Valery Gerasimov, told a news briefing:

"A humanitarian corridor has been created for the evacuation of militants. This corridor is 21 kilometers long. Six kilometres lie across Aleppo's territories controlled by government troops and another 15 kilometers through territories in the hands of illegal armed groups."

United Nations humanitarian advisor for Syria, Jan Egeland, said the evacuation will move an estimated 30,000 civilians and will involve the evacuation of the sick and wounded, vulnerable civilians, and fighters. “Thousands of people are in need of evacuation, but the first and most urgent thing is wounded, sick and children, including orphans,” he said.

Turkey a fellow organiser of the evacuation is preparing to receive some of the most vulnerable civilians, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. In a televised address, he stated that Turkey would receive "children, elders, those who are really in difficult conditions".

Constant Threat

Concerns have been raised over the success of the evacuation due to its proximity to the ongoing conflict. The Turkish Red Crescent has told Reuters that it is preparing a refugee camp in the Idlib province which will host some 80,000 people. The Idlib province is controlled by a powerful rebel alliance that includes the terrorist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned that moving those evacuated to Idlib might not prove much safer. "If there is no political agreement and a ceasefire, Idlib will become the next Aleppo," he told reporters in Paris.

Backing up this claim is Syrian President Assad who has stated publically in October that a victory in Aleppo would be a springboard for the end of the civil war. In his interview he singled out Idlib province, west of Aleppo, which is almost entirely controlled by an alliance of Islamist rebel factions and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front.

And again today when President Assad stated that,

“We are not speaking about a ceasefire. During the talks combat activities are going on since we do not trust terrorists, who in many cases say one thing and do another. For instance, we have demanded to declare a ceasefire in order to regain their strength and get support with weapons and ammunition. Aleppo’s liberation will not end up with the terrorists retaking the city under control, he said.”

Certainly the Idlib province is an important stronghold for the rebel alliance. It has several border crossings used by rebels to receive supplies from Turkey, a key backer. However as it also borders the coastal province of Latakia, the heartland of Mr Assad's minority Alawite sect, it will be considered even more of a threat.

The Spoils of War

The reality of the Syrian conflict is complex. There are many actors currently with stakes in the conflict and this often causes difficulties. Take for example the failure of the first ceasefire on Wednesday. Syrian Opposition groups and UN sources are currently claiming that the rapid return to hostilities in Aleppo was due to Iran’s involvement in the ceasefire.

Reports indicate that the Iranian government was insistent that the scheduled humanitarian evacuation of East Aleppo include a simultaneous evacuation of injured people from the villages of Foua and Kefraya that are currently being besieged by rebel forces, complicating the evacuation.

So it is hardly surprising that the involvement of Turkey in this recent ceasefire may not be all that it seems. Turkey has strong economic incentives to install itself in the Idlib province and create an enclave it could monitor.

Currently Turkey and Israel are pursuing an avenue for a gas pipeline between the Israeli oil/gas fields and Turkey for export into Europe. As long gas pipelines can only be built economically in shallow waters hugging coastlines (due to the need for future repairs) a planned Turkey-Israel pipeline may potentially need to go through Syria’s economic zone which extends 370 km off the Syrian coastline. Turkey would economically benefit if it could control a coastal section of the Syrian State through an independent Turkish controlled region.

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