Friday, July 29, 2016

The Guardian view on the battle for Aleppo: stop it now

Forces loyal to President Assad walk past rubble in Aleppo
 Forces loyal to President Assad walk among the ruins of Aleppo. ‘The fate of Aleppo’s inhabitants may to a large degree depend on how global public opinion can now be mobilised.’ Photograph: SANA/Reuters
The situation in Aleppo is now more critical than it has ever been since the start of Syria’s civil war five years ago and this has come at a bad moment, when western attention is focused on terrorism in Europe or the US electoral campaign. We must, though, now attend to Syria as well. What is happening now could be a decisive turning point in the conflict, which will destroy whatever diplomatic hopes remain of a negotiated solution. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people are trapped in Aleppo’s eastern neighbourhoods, which are now entirely surrounded by Syrian government forces. These troops are assisted in their offensive by Russian air power and Iranian-controlled militias. No food, no medical aid, no humanitarian assistance, has been able to reach the population of Aleppo’s rebel-held territory for several weeks now, because of the intensity of the military onslaught.
Aleppo was once the second largest city in Syria, and it has been one of the key symbols of resistance to the Assad regime since 2012, when anti-Assad groups took control of parts of it. It has been a long-held goal of the Assad power structure to crush Aleppo. If nothing is done to stop the advance of his forces this disaster seems imminent. It would not just be a defeat for the rebels, perhaps an irreversible defeat for the uprising – it would be the beginning of a new, humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented proportions in Syria.
The tragedy is not just that Aleppo is encircled, it is that the forces that have tightened the knot on it in recent days are set to either starve or empty it. Aleppo has been so massively shelled and bombed these past weeks that it has become an inferno for those who struggle among the ruins. There are hardly any doctors left in the city, and the last hospital has been destroyed. UN agencies say food stocks are barely sufficient to hold out for one month.
The Syrian government and its Russian allies are resorting to a tactic of siege and starvation that has been used before in Syria, but they are now doing it on a much larger scale, and openly. Their announcement of “humanitarian corridors” for civilians and rebels who would want to flee the area must be exposed as a cynical ruse. It is no surprise that Aleppo’s population is not rushing towards these exit corridors, which have not in any case materialised on the ground. The Assad regime’s promises are incredible. The Syrian government has demonstrated time and again how little it cares for international humanitarian law. Its machine of repression makes no distinction whatsoever between armed combatants and civilians. Tens of thousands have died in its detention centres. That Syrian and Russian officials have made the announcement without consulting or even warning UN agencies in advance is proof that they want no external witnesses to their misdeeds.
Aleppo’s siege must be urgently lifted. The plight has reached crunch time. International pressure must be put on Russia to force Syrian troops to retreat, so that lives can be saved. But the fate of Aleppo’s inhabitants may to a large degree depend on how global public opinion can now be mobilised. Saving Aleppo from utter destruction and more massacres is not only a humanitarian imperative, it is also the only way the thin chances of a settlement in Syria will ever be salvaged.


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