Haid Haid

Aleppo’s double siege and the need for humanitarian corridors

An estimated 2 million residents are at risk of losing access to food and medical aid

Opposition fighters drive a tank in an eastern government besieged neighborhood of Aleppo on August 5, 2016. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

The dire situation in the northern city of Aleppo, following the government-imposed siege on opposition-held areas in the city, led to calls to allow aid in via the creation of humanitarian corridors. Russia and the Syrian regime reacted by announcing the establishment of humanitarian corridors to evacuate citizens from Aleppo and offer a way out for fighters wanting to surrender. Local and international organizations denied the existence of any humanitarian corridors and estimated that 300,000 citizens were trapped in Aleppo without access to protection, food or medicine. The international community's demands for the establishment of humanitarian corridors quickly faded after a counterattack by rebel groups succeeded in breaking the one month siege on the eastern parts of the city. However, the possibility of future sieges remains high as fighting continues in and around Syria’s second city. Regime forces and militias backed by Iran and Russia are reportedly preparing a massive counterattack to recapture recently lost territories in order to besiege eastern Aleppo again. On the other hand, the rebels’ recent gains threaten to isolate government-held western Aleppo by cutting its southern supply route towards the capital Damascus. An estimated 2 million civilians in Aleppo are likely to remain under threat of losing access to aid and safe heavens, whether or not either of the warring parties achieves their aims in the ongoing fighting. Thus, the establishment of humanitarian corridors in Aleppo has become a high priority again.


Double siege


The Syrian regime, assisted by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, was able to completely besiege Aleppo’s rebel-held territory in July by cutting off the Castello Road, the only route in and out of rebel-held areas of the city. An estimated 300,000 citizens were placed under siege without access to food, medical aid or humanitarian assistance for several weeks, which led to a rapid rise in food prices. Although Syrian rebels broke through to besieged areas in eastern Aleppo on August 6, pro-regime airstrikes and shelling have been extensively bombing the newly opened corridor, leaving no avenue that would allow for the safe passage of civilians. “The new route that the opposition groups captured is not secured yet. The Assad regime and Russia did not stop bombing the new areas captured by opposition groups, which makes it extremely difficult to bring humanitarian supplies into eastern Aleppo or allow civilians to leave,” said Mustafa al-Abdullah, a media activist in Aleppo. Moreover, the rebels’ recent military gains severed the main regime supply corridor into the city from the south, which threatens the besiegement of regime-held areas in western Aleppo. “Although the Assad regime can use the Castello Road to bring in goods, that road is not enough to provide regime-held areas with all their needs. It takes longer to deliver goods via that road in comparison to the Ramouseh Road, which was the main supply route into the northern city. It is also getting more dangerous, especially since fighting is expected to erupt there soon as part of the new rebel offensive to capture the city of Aleppo,” added Abdullah.  


Death corridors


Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said on July 28 that Russia and Syria would open three humanitarian corridors out of eastern Aleppo to allow civilians to flee, and a fourth corridor for surrendering fighters. Leaflets were dropped over rebel-held parts of the city with instructions of how to approach checkpoints and a map showing the corridors. SANA, Syria’s state news agency, also reported on July 31 that dozens of families had left the besieged militant-controlled eastern parts of Aleppo via humanitarian passages set up by the Syrian army. However, activists and locals in eastern Aleppo denied the report, claiming that people are not using these proffered avenues of escape. “There were no corridors open. The regime and the Russians are targeting the locations of the designated death corridors. I prefer to die at home instead of going to where they choose to kill me,” said Anas Rasheed, a local resident of the Al-Ansari Mashhad district of the city. The Syrian Network for Human Rights published a statement warning people against using these corridors and arguing that they face risk of detention, torture or even death along the route. As evidence, the network highlighted 750 documented cases of forced disappearances of people who crossed from opposition to regime-held areas after the establishment of similar corridors in Homs in 2014.


Any hope?


The United Nations has urgently called for a ceasefire in Aleppo in order to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance to more than two million civilians living in the warn-torn city. Although a ceasefire could temporarily mitigate the suffering of the local populace, it is unlikely that such an initiative would hold for long, with all warring parties currently sending reinforcements to the city. Thus, in the absence of the ability to broker and maintain ceasefires, the international community should continue to focus on establishing human corridors, which should be relatively easier to implement than ceasefires. All rebel groups issued a statement on August 9 expressing their commitment to fully cooperating with international humanitarian organizations and guaranteeing aid access to all civilian areas. Russia also announced on August 10 that a daily three-hour ceasefire would take place in Aleppo to allow aid in. These two recent developments followed intense international pressure to ease the dire situation in the city. Following up further, the international community should make use of these statements and the double siege in Aleppo to intensify its pressure on all parties in the conflict to establish such humanitarian corridors. However, for such corridors to be effective they should be agreed upon by all actors, who in turn would guarantee the security of such corridors. The safe routes should also be overseen by a task force, chaired by a neutral party or parties, which would monitor the truce, and report and follow up on violations. Furthermore, these corridors should be voluntary, with guarantees provided to civilians who choose to leave that they will not be detained and will be given a choice of where to relocate, be it in regime or rebel-held territory. Finally, these corridors should neither be used as an excuse to justify further violations nor as a substitute for allowing aid to be delivered to civilians who choose to remain in besieged areas. 


The use of siege tactics in the conflict is not limited to the double encirclement of Aleppo. According to a recent report in May by Siege Watch, a joint initiative of PAX and The Syria Institute, more than 1,000,000 Syrians are suffering under siege and an additional 1,400,000 are at risk of becoming completely besieged. 85% of these areas are besieged entirely by the Syrian regime forces, 14% are besieged by a mixture of Syrian government forces and ISIS, while 1% is besieged by rebel groups. Using the Aleppo context as a model, the international community must continue to push for sustained humanitarian access across all of Syria, which is guaranteed by international law.


Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22 

Opposition fighters drive a tank in an eastern government besieged neighborhood of Aleppo on August 5, 2016. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

'The new route that the opposition groups captured is not secured yet. The Assad regime and Russia did not stop bombing the new areas captured by opposition groups, which makes it extremely difficult to bring humanitarian supplies into eastern Aleppo or allow civilians to leave.'