“Leave or starve” is how the Syrian opposition described Russia’s proposal to create humanitarian corridors in Aleppo to allow civilians to flee ahead of increased airstrikes. By the end of July, Assad government forces, with support from Russia, successfully surrounded rebel-held areas in eastern Aleppo, besieging about 300,000 residents. The United Nations (UN) estimated that food and medical supplies in these areas would only last between one to three weeks with dire humanitarian consequences. The ultimatum — to either remain and endure air bombardments and starvation or escape to the western side of the province under government control — amounted to forced displacement which is prohibited under international humanitarian law. Before the corridors could take effect, however, a coalition of rebels including Ahrar al-Sham, Jeysh al-Fateh, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) broke the siege, bringing in trucks of food supplies. Despite the relief that these food trucks brought to civilians in the area, it is difficult to overlook the fact that the so-called liberators have been accused of committing numerous human rights violations in the past. The symbolism of aid reaching besieged areas through these fighters instead of the UN has negatively impacted the UN’s image among Syrians and could jeopardize the peace process.
Before the siege ended, the Russian and Syrian governments issued a statement to the UN, announcing the establishment of four humanitarian corridors, three for civilians and one for armed rebel fighters. Despite the Syrian government’s guarantees of safety, Aleppo residents dubbed them “death corridors” because they feared the government would target anyone who tried to utilize the corridors through airstrikes or arrests. The Syrian opposition even compared Syria’s strategy to Grozny, where Russia dropped leaflets to inform Chechen civilians of humanitarian corridors, briefly allowing people to flee, only to then bombard and flatten the city.
As previously written by the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, “forced population transfers are strictly forbidden under international law.” Although this particular incident of forcibly displacing people does not aim to change the sectarian makeup of the region, it does not allow civilians the choice to remain safely in their homes. International humanitarian law requires parties to a conflict to prevent displacement caused by their own unlawful acts. Moreover, where forced displacement is widespread and systematic, the Rome Statute categorizes such actions as crimes against humanity. On August 2, Save the Children and 34 other humanitarian organizations issued a statement condemning the proposal: “A true humanitarian operation would not force the people of Aleppo to choose between fleeing into the arms of their attackers or remaining in a besieged area under continued bombardment.” Robert Mardini, Middle East director for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), stressed that such corridors would need to be carefully planned and do not absolve the responsibility to protect civilians — those who choose to stay must be protected and allowed humanitarian assistance.
The UN’s response to the proposal was mixed. Although UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura expressed support for the creation of humanitarian corridors, he urged Russia to leave it to the UN. The UN’s Under-Secretary General for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs took an even stronger stance by outright denouncing the proposal and calling on the UN Security Council to take a tougher position on the humanitarian crisis. An internal UN document about the proposal, however, suggests that some UN officials seriously considered the Russia proposal, raising even greater concerns among Syrians that the UN is not in a credible position to negotiate for humanitarian relief. Throughout the negotiation process in Geneva, the UN has failed to end sieges or broker credible trust-building initiatives that would have tremendous benefits for civilians. Instead, armed groups have filled this role, becoming the major supplies of food and humanitarian assistance and emboldening their stature among civilians. Given that many of these groups have extremist ideologies, this will have drastic effects on the negotiation process. Moreover, two of the groups involved in breaking the siege have seats at the table in Geneva, meaning that the UN has failed to convince either side of the conflict to trust the process more than they trust their weapons. If Syrians follow suit and put faith in armed groups with a history of committing human rights violations rather than the UN-led political process, there will be little buy-in for continuing participation in Geneva, which will harm efforts to broker a transition and bring justice to the victims of the conflict.
In fact, there is every indication that al-Nusra’s rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will capitalize on the recent developments, and several rebel groups have already expressed willingness to cooperate with them. The longer the conflict continues, the greater the risk armed groups will expand their support base and gain more legitimacy among the local population. Thus, the peace process is more vital than ever, but such a process requires UN mediators to prioritize confidence building measures, putting real pressure on the Syrian and Russian governments to ease the humanitarian crisis. Had the food trucks entering besieged areas in Aleppo been sent by the UN instead of armed groups, it would have had an enormous symbolic impact and improved the UN’s image among Syrians, giving the UN more legitimacy at the negotiating table. This, however, would require a different approach that focuses on victims first and foremost rather than on the politics of the main international brokers.
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