“In a maximum of two months, two and a half months, the city of eastern Aleppo at this rate may be totally destroyed,” United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura told a news conference in Geneva on October 6. “Thousands of Syrian civilians, not terrorists, will be killed and many of them wounded.”

For months, the Syrian and Russian air forces have pummeled the rebel-held enclave in eastern Aleppo with high explosives and even incendiary weapons. Peace talks and truce plans have failed to make any headway, and the insurgents have failed in their repeated attempts to break the siege. De Mistura now turned to the Al Qaeda-offshoot, formerly known as the Nusra Front and now as Fateh al-Sham—which according to the UN has some 900 hundreds fighters holed up in eastern Aleppo among a total of 8,000 insurgents—with a dramatic proposal:

“If you did decide to leave in dignity, and with your weapons, to Idlib or anywhere you wanted to go, I personally am ready physically to accompany you,” said de Mistura.

“If you did decide to leave in dignity, and with your weapons, to Idlib or anywhere you wanted to go, I personally am ready physically to accompany you,” said de Mistura. The soft-spoken, 69-year-old Swedish-Italian diplomat would seem an unlikely sight on the cratered and rubble-strewn roads of eastern Aleppo, but here he was, proposing himself as a solitary human shield to evacuate the jihadis in return for an end to the bombing.

Syria’s factions are not likely to take up the diplomat’s offer, if recent history is any guide. Yet, the government, and its backers, including Russia and Iran, seem confident that their strategy to encircle Aleppo will work, and that restoring control over Syria’s economic capital is now only a matter of time. Absent a major reversal of fortune, the Syrian government sees a path to a form of victory. Where does that leave the United Nations, or the United States and other rebel backers? More pressingly, where does it leave Syria’s civilians?

War and Diplomacy

Staffan de Mistura’s gambit is designed to win a respite for civilians and get humanitarian aid into eastern Aleppo. But the UN envoy also appeared to be reaching out to Russia, which is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s primary ally on the ground as well as on the Security Council.

The Russian government often points to groups like Fateh al-Sham when defending its pro-Assad military intervention, and it has long asked for the jihadis to be separated from other opposition factions. It would be difficult for Moscow to refuse if de Mistura promised to deliver precisely this outcome. But when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov welcomed de Mistura’s remarks, it was a reflection of Russian self-interest. The Kremlin seems to want to draw the United States back into the just-abandoned truce negotiations, and, more importantly, it would greatly appreciate the gloss of international legality that the United Nations could provide to Assad’s plan of forcing the armed rebels out of eastern Aleppo. And failing that, reducing rebel manpower by some 10 percent must seem a worthwhile goal in itself.

As it happens, Fateh al-Sham rejected the de Mistura proposal almost immediately; its spokesperson Hussam al-Shafei accused the UN mediator of working in support of Bashar al-Assad and affirmed that Fateh al-Sham will remain “one of the pillars of the military strength of the Syrian revolution.” But the intransigent attitude of the jihadis could also end up weakening the enclave’s defenses, since it is likely to prompt a backlash from at least some of the civilians in eastern Aleppo, and perhaps from some of the other rebel factions, too. A UN report recently estimated that between 250,000 and 275,000 civilians remain inside the enclave, and that half of them would rather leave the city than dig in for an apocalyptic final battle. It is not difficult to understand why.

Deliberately Hurting the Civilian Population

For months, eastern Aleppo has been under intense and nearly constant attack by the Syrian and Russian air forces. Though many targets are surely military in nature, there is also a good deal of indiscriminate bombing and unlawful but willful targeting of civilian institutions, such as medical facilities. In addition, an economic blockade has been put in place that seems deliberately designed to hurt unarmed civilians.

Source: Aleppo, Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Aleppo, Wikimedia Commons.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein did not mince words in an October 4 statement:

“The current operation by the Syrian Government and its allies appears to be intended to force the surrender of fighters in eastern Aleppo by any means necessary. This apparent aim is reflected in a pattern of attacks that have damaged or destroyed objects that have special protection under international humanitarian law, including medical units and structures vital for people’s well-being such as water-pumping stations; and attacks that have killed and injured people involved in providing humanitarian assistance.”

Similar protests were heard from UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien, who on October 2 warned that the health care system in eastern Aleppo is “all but obliterated” with medical facilities being systematically bombed ”one by one.” According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, only six out of what used to be twenty-one medical facilities in Aleppo were still functioning on September 29 and since then more have been targeted. The city’s main trauma hospital, Sakhour, was taken out in repeated attacks on October 3.

Even more telling than the attacks on hospitals is the fact that aid convoys are prevented from traveling to eastern Aleppo. While Damascus and Moscow may blame the death of civilians on targeting mistakes or hostile media reporting, it is difficult to hold anyone but the Syrian government responsible for closing its own checkpoints to block passage to aid convoys. Except for a few trucks permitted to enter in August, the Assad government has managed to prevent the United Nations and the Red Crescent from delivering food, fuel, or medications to eastern Aleppo ever since cutting the city’s last supply line in July this year.

The results have been entirely predictable. “Availability of food commodities is decreasing steadily,” notes the UN in a new update on the humanitarian situation:

“The food available is increasing in price. Whatever small amounts of food families still have, the lack of kerosene and propane cooking gas in the eastern part of the city makes it difficult to cook what food is left. Reports of civilians rummaging through the rubble of destroyed buildings to salvage any flammable material that can be used for cooking are common. . . . The psychological and emotional health of the besieged population is reportedly steadily worsening. One humanitarian partner reported that a mother of a one-month baby expressed regret for giving birth to her child under the current difficult circumstances. Moreover, arguments among spouses have reportedly increased as many women are blaming their husbands for choosing to stay while it was possible to leave the city.”

“Draining the Water”

This civilian suffering is not a manifestation of senseless cruelty. It is part of a plan. The idea behind these bombings and the prevention of aid is very simple, and as old as war itself. By making life in the enclave unbearable and breaking the spirit of its population through unrelenting violence, the opposition fighters will eventually be forced to surrender or evacuate to another area. As long as they refuse, civilians will trickle out to escape death, and some are likely to turn against the insurgency, subverting its popular base. Fighters who reject a negotiated exit or surrender will end up isolated from the civilian population, whether physically or psychologically, and this will facilitate government action against them. It is, at its root, a classic counter-insurgency doctrine, sometimes referred to as “draining the water”—though it now tends to be phrased in more antiseptic terms by Western military strategists, and it can be applied in more or less gruesome ways.

The strategy began to be implemented in eastern Aleppo in July, when army forces were still seeking to secure the city’s perimeter. The government and its Russian allies announced the opening of designated safe exits at several points of the frontline; leaflets were then dropped over the enclave and text messages sent across government-controlled cell phone networks, telling eastern Aleppo’s inhabitants to seize the opportunity to save their families. Members of the armed opposition were reminded of the amnesty laws decreed by President Assad in February and July this year, and those who refused to hand over their weapons would instead be offered safe conduct to other rebel-held areas—they could go anywhere, just not stay in Aleppo. This is what de Mistura alluded to in his challenge to Fateh al-Sham.

The army has had great success with these tactics elsewhere in Syria. A prominent test case was the evacuation of rebels from the Old City of Homs in spring 2014. Other cases include a number of starved-out Damascus neighborhoods, the cities of Madaya and Zabadani on the Lebanese border, and more recently the suburbs of Darayya, west of the capital, and al-Waer, west of Homs. Siege warfare has worked to the government’s advantage, despite the outcry it provokes from the besieged Syrians themselves and from parts of the humanitarian aid community.

The Syrian government argues that there is no more humane way of retaking these areas than allowing opponents to evacuate them unharmed, since a fight to the end would undoubtedly kill many more civilians. While that is obviously a self-serving argument, it is just as obviously true, and it deserves more international attention than it has received. If a besieged area is on the verge of being overrun, whether by Assad or some opposition faction, it is not unreasonable for the international community to seek to soften the blow by facilitating a nonviolent handover and leading civilians out of harm’s way.

It is hard to claim that civilians seeking to leave eastern Aleppo are doing so voluntarily, when they are in fact fleeing bombs and impending starvation as the result of a strategy that seems deliberately designed to force them out.

“Any initiative that can successfully give civilians some respite from the ongoing and indiscriminate violence, and allows them to voluntarily leave for safer areas, would be much welcomed,” said Robert Mardini of the International Committee of the Red Cross in a recent statement. But Mardini also added a crucial qualification by pointing out that such humanitarian corridors not only “need to be well and carefully planned,” but that they also require ”the consent of parties on all sides.” In this case, it is hard to claim that civilians seeking to leave eastern Aleppo are doing so voluntarily, when they are in fact fleeing bombs and impending starvation as the result of a strategy that seems deliberately designed to force them out.

Too Afraid to Move

Until now, however, surprisingly few Syrians have left eastern Aleppo. Many seem to suspect that the announcements of safe exits and humanitarian corridors are merely a propaganda ploy or, worse, a trap. “Everybody we’ve spoken to on the ground in Aleppo says that not only do they not trust either the Syrian regime or the Russians to implement this plan—and that the rebel forces will be safe if they surrender or if civilians flee through these corridors—but they also say it does not make sense to them that this would be carried out in this way,” a reporter from the pro-opposition Al Jazeera network noted in late July.

The Syrian government, of course, has a different description of the problem. It blames the lack of civilian evacuees on the opposition, arguing that the rebels have threatened civilians and are forcing them to remain as human shields. This may very well be true in some cases, although it is impossible to say how many. In addition, the obvious danger of traversing a city under constant bombardment has surely prevented many from even attempting to escape, whether or not they fear being apprehended by armed groups.

Fear of the Baathist security apparatus ran deep in Syria long before 2011, and, historically, the government has rarely shown itself a gracious winner.

That said, the larger problem does appear to be a deep mistrust of the government among eastern Aleppans. Fear of the Baathist security apparatus ran deep in Syria long before 2011, and, historically, the government has rarely shown itself a gracious winner. Many middle-aged or elderly Syrians will recall horrendous abuses against suspected Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers, which did not end after its failed 1979–82 insurgency. Rather, thousands of suspected Islamists disappeared in government captivity and petty harassment of their family members continued for years, in some cases decades. Since 2011, innumerable new stories about the vindictiveness, disorderly brutality, and duplicity of the Syrian security apparatus will have sunk into the collective consciousness of eastern Aleppo, where, even by the deprived standards of these ruined neighborhoods, trust in an enemy’s good intentions is likely to remain in short supply.

The Assad government seems well aware of its credibility problem and is belatedly making ham-fisted attempts to show a softer side. When the assault on eastern Aleppo began on September 22, the armed forces sought to publicly assure civilians that they would not be arrested or even questioned at the designated exit checkpoints. The army later clarified that Russian observers will also be present to guarantee safe conduct, in case eastern Aleppans do not trust the military to stay true to its word. But for people seeking to leave the enclave, the problem is more complex and difficult to resolve. Passing a single checkpoint is one thing, but those who decide to cross the frontline must also know that they can stay and live in government-held territory without being pressured or extorted, subjected to revenge attacks by out-of-control militias, or, as happened in the 1980s, picked up by the intelligence services years later. Could the Russians or anyone else guarantee the safety of civilians and ex-rebels next week, next month, and next year?

Dozens of families fleeing Aleppo on September 19, 2016. Source: Sana.

In the face of such deeply held fears, Assad’s evacuation plans have stumbled. Eastern Aleppans’ “security concerns and fear of being detained” are the main reasons for why the government’s exit checkpoints aren’t being used, notes a late-September UN report. And while Syrian state media keeps broadcasting images of civilians leaving eastern Aleppo, they so far seem to number in the hundreds rather than in the thousands or tens of thousands that would make a tangible difference.

Assad Is Winning

Still, the situation is becoming increasingly dire. On October 4, the UN stated that some 50 percent of the inhabitants of eastern Aleppo now express a ”willingness to leave if they can.” As pressure on the population grows, humanitarian problems pile up, and eastern Aleppo is slowly being dragged toward a breakdown. The opposition senses defeat and the government senses victory, though it may yet be far away. On October 5, the Syrian military leadership again began to call on opposition fighters to lay down their arms and repent. “The gunmen in the neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo should not expect any help from anyone,” said one statement. “All lines of supply have been cut and there is no other option before them than to lay down their arms.” The military also announced that it would slow down the pace of airstrikes and artillery attacks:

“After the successes realized by our armed forces in Aleppo, the cutting of all supply routes for the terrorist groups in the city’s eastern neighborhoods, and the destruction of the active centers and headquarters of the terrorists, and for the purpose of improving the humanitarian conditions of the civilians in Aleppo who have been taken hostage and are being used as human shields by terrorist groups, the General Command has decided to limit the number of airstrikes and the artillery shelling against terrorist positions, so as to facilitate the exit of citizens who wish to leave for safe areas.”

Perhaps this was mere posturing or a reaction to some outside event, such as a recent White House leak about contingency plans for air strikes on Assad (which was almost certainly posturing). It may also reflect a need to divert troops to the Hama region, where jihadi-led rebel groups launched a major offensive on August 29. But it is equally possible that this is exactly what it looks like: the Assad government is moving ahead with its plans to contain, weaken, neutralize, and eventually recapture eastern Aleppo, which may take weeks, or months, or years. It will alternate between furious attacks and brief spells of relative calm, seeking to draw reconcilable insurgents out and isolate the hardliners, while civilians are encouraged—by carrot and stick—to filter out of the city.

In the longer run, such a strategy stands a good chance of splitting the opposition. There’s already tension in the opposition over de Mistura’s proposal. The Western-backed, Turkey-based exiles of the National Coalition have announced that they will discuss the proposal to evacuate Fateh al-Sham with their allies among the non-jihadi rebel groups, some of whom may be tempted by the idea, while the National Coalition-linked Syrian Interim Government has issued a strong condemnation.

If some of the armed groups or their civilian constituents in Aleppo begin to see Fateh al-Sham as a reason for their continued suffering and come to regard negotiated surrender to Assad as a least-bad option, destabilizing rifts may emerge in the insurgency. And if Fateh al-Sham is in fact expelled from the city at some point, Aleppo has one less spoiler faction. That could encourage the United States to again join truce talks with Russia—and of course, as long as the siege holds, any truce would inevitably be a lopsided arrangement in Assad’s favor.

A Fight Until the End or a Managed Defeat?

In the end, however, the Syrian war may just be too much of a mess for any of these neatly plotted plans to work. At the time of writing, it seems likely that Staffan de Mistura’s jihadi evacuation proposal will end up being undermined or completely rejected, whether by one party to the war or by all of them. And though there will be lulls in the fighting, the Syrian government will undoubtedly continue to press its own plans for a soft rebel surrender—again, again, and again. For every rejection, more bombs will fall.

If the rebels and their backers are in fact unable to prevent Aleppo from falling at some point, as U.S. intelligence seems to think, then the opposition, its international backers, and the United Nations must soon decide how to handle that slow collapse. Many will argue that they should try to negotiate a deal that would at least limit the suffering of civilians, though the question is if that can be done without putting a stamp of approval on what amounts to a strategy of deliberate war crimes. It is already the route taken by Staffan de Mistura, who must be well aware that excising Fateh al-Sham from the wider Aleppan insurgency would weaken the opposition’s military posture, perhaps fatally so. But his ambition now seems to be to provide the civilians of eastern Aleppo with a soft landing, and little more.

With so little leverage and such poor odds, rejectionist grandstanding is not likely to serve the opposition well. There is virtually no chance that Bashar al-Assad and his allies will relent or loosen their grip on the enclave. In an interview on Danish television on October 6, the Syrian president again stated what he has always said: that he intends to “continue the fight with the rebels until they leave Aleppo. They have to. There’s no other option.”

He seems to mean it.

Cover Photo: Wikipedia, An FSA fighter walking among rubble in Aleppo, October 2012.