Humanitarian calls have not led negotiations closer to solving the conflict in Syria because several different conflicts are being fought out in the region. Russian and Iranian involvement is openly defying western calls for peace-negotiations.
“Where should we go?” Asks an elderly Syrian women in a video posted on Facebook by Syrian media-outlet Madar Daily. It shows thousands of Syrians huddled beside the closed-off Turkish border. She continues: “Russia is bombing us, Iran is bombing us, Daesh is bombing us.”
They are part of the latest wave of refugees fleeing Aleppo after Russian airstrikes hit the city. Up to 70.000 people have fled toward the Turkish border.
Where could they go? Earlier this year, footage of starving children with sunken cheeks and hollow eyes came out, showing the government’s alleged ‘starve or surrender’ policy in different parts of Syria.
A senior US official told British newspaper The Guardian that there is sufficient proof that the Assad regime is behind this medieval siege-tactic: “We certainly do believe that it is the regime primarily that has blocked access.”
“People are literally dying in malnutrition in places like Yarmouk (a Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Damascus), and Homs,” he said.
The siege-tactic is a double-edged measure, serving not only as physically repressive measure, but also as a scare-tactic. Life in search of safe refuge elsewhere is seen as the lesser evil as waged against bombs and looming besiegement.
The tens of thousands fleeing the city shows that people of Aleppo are losing faith in the defensive capabilities of the opposition in the city. The threat of living in a city under Russian airstrikes seems to drive people away faster than battles on the ground between government and rebel forces.
Still, while tens of thousands have left in the past week, around 400.000 people remain residing in the non-government controlled areas of Aleppo.
They are expected to stay, said Dalia al-Awqati, the director of programs for charity organization Mercy Corps in Northern Syria to The Guardian: “The people able to leave would have left by now.”
Christopher Kozak, author of a 2015 book on the Bashar Al-Assad-regime and research analysts for the US-based Institute for the Study of War, writes that President Assad is within 5 miles of completing the encirclement of Aleppo City, enabled by Russian airpower and Iranian manpower.
Full encirclement, he continues, “would fuel a humanitarian catastrophe, shatter opposition morale and deny the opposition its most valuable bargaining chip before the international community.”
The Syrian war is going to be fought out on the ground, he concludes. “Battlefield realities rather than great power politics will determine the ultimate terms of a settlement to end the Syrian Civil War.”
Taking back Aleppo from opposition forces would pose a major strategic victory for President Assad as the city has been a stronghold for anti-government forces since the revolutions in the Arab Spring of 2012.
Humanitarian organizations fear that the amount of people under siege will double, with humanitarian aid increasingly hard to come by. Al-Awqati of Mercy Corps told The Guardian that Mercy Corps-aid was “effectively sliced in half” due to recent fighting.
This shows that calls for peace on humanitarian principles have largely been inefficient in accelerating peace negotiations while power politics has largely been responsible for the current positions at the negotiations tables.
In the week of the first Geneva talks, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 1.900 casualties in Syria.
“It is hardly a coincidence that the bombardment of Aleppo, a symbol of the 2011 anti-Assad revolution, started just as peace talks were being attempted in Geneva,” writes former executive editor of Le Monde and columnist for The Guardian Natalie Nougayrède.
Nougayrède points at the Russian interest in Syria, writing that Russia benefits from obstructing peace talks. “If there were ever any doubts about Russia’s objectives in Syria, events around Aleppo will surely have cleared them.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to reassert Russian power in the Middle East, “but it is Europe that he really has in mind,” she writes. While Putin might not be behind a master scheme for the Syrian civil war, he is seizing the opportunity to further divide Europe.
“The refugee crisis has put key EU institutions under strain; it has heightened the danger of Brexit (which Moscow would welcome); and it has severely weakened Angela Merkel, the architect of European sanctions against Russia.”
After the suspension of the peace negotiations mid-January, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reacted by saying in a press-release that “the continued assault by Syrian regime forces -enabled by Russian airstrikes- against opposition-held areas, as well as regime and allied militias’ continued besiegement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, have clearly signaled the intention to seek a military solution rather than enable a political one.”
Frederic Hof, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East former adviser on Syria under the Obama administration, points out the importance of this realization in a piece for U.S.-based think tank Atlantic Council.
Putin, he writes, has learnt from peace negotiations in past and “decided that he can pull this off with impunity.”
“He has noticed that for all of the verbiage about human suffering, mass homicide, terrified refugees, red lines, and people stepping aside, the West has protected not a single Syrian inside Syria from his regrettable client.”
Hof points out that the US and its allies have focused on diplomacy to no result, while Russia and Iran have pursued their political-military objectives.
John Kerry’s sole hope for a successful negotiation, he says “rests on persuading Russia and Iran to abandon that which they regard as their national interests in Syria. One wishes for Mr. Kerry all of the luck he will need to persuade actors who are fully at ease with mass murder and whatever else it takes to preserve their client.”