Russia announced on Tuesday that it would halt airstrikes on Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, in preparation for an eight-hour cease-fire to be implemented later this week.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made the announcement in a televised meeting with military officials, saying he expected Syrian rebels inside Aleppo to use the pause in the fighting to leave the city through two special corridors.
He said the rebels could bring their weapons with them, and he promised that the Syrian army would pull back and allow them to exit unharmed.
Watchdogs inside Syria reported that Russia had stopped its airstrikes by Tuesday morning. But many are skeptical of the intentions behind Moscow’s surprise announcement, which was not coordinated with the UN. Some experts think Russia is not extending an olive branch to the rebels but imposing an ultimatum, as the proposal appears designed to force rebels to either surrender the city or be killed in airstrikes after the cease-fire ends.
“I wish this step could be seen as a humanitarian gesture, but that seems implausible,” Mark Kramer, program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Business Insider on Tuesday.
Kramer said that the proposal is likely a “cynical step” designed to keep EU foreign ministers from agreeing on new sanctions against Russia in connection with its “merciless bombardment” of Aleppo.
“A more ominous possibility is that Russian forces are getting set to level Aleppo to the ground,” he said. “The same approach was used in December 1999-January 2000, when Russian forces sent an ultimatum to the population of Grozny to leave the city and then wiped the bulk of the Chechen capital off the map.”
Russia’s scorched-earth campaign in Aleppo over the past month to eliminate opposition to its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, has invoked memories of Grozny’s decimation by Russia 16 years ago. That campaign came as part of an effort to wipe out Chechen separatists, and the evacuation offer turned out to be a deadly trap.
In February 2000, the Russian military offered the Chechen rebels safe passage out of Grozny. But that corridor, which led to the village of Alkhan-Kala three miles away, turned out to be a Russian minefield that killed hundreds of rebels as they tried to escape. Those who dodged the landmines were targeted by Russian artillery shells and rockets.
“The Russians claim they lured the rebels into a trap by pretending to sell them safe passage out of Grozny for $100,000, and finished most of them off with artillery barrages,” The Guardian reported on February 4, 2000. At least 600 Chechens died in the Alkhan-Kala operation.
With that in mind, Kramer said, even if Russia sticks to the terms of its own cease-fire, no one in Aleppo should construe that as a sign of sustainable peace.
“Total destruction may well rain down immediately thereafter,” he said.
Grozny is ‘a solution we’re all looking for’
On Monday, one day before Shoygu’s announcement, Russia’s embassy in the US made an unprompted comparison between Grozny and Aleppo.
“Grozny today is a peaceful, modern, and thriving city,” the embassy wrote on its notoriously provocative Twitter account. “Ain’t that a solution we’re all looking for? #Aleppo”
Notably, the new Russian plan for Aleppo was meant to offer civilians a way out, too. As the UN pointed out, however, the plan did not guarantee the safety of aid workers bringing medical supplies and other humanitarian aid into Aleppo that the wounded and sick might need to flee the city.
UN aid convoys were bombed late last month as they attempted to cross with humanitarian supplies from southern Turkey into northern Syria. Russia and Syria have denied any involvement in the attack, but they are the only forces with air power in the country.
State-sponsored news agency Russia Today reported that some rebel fighters inside the city are using civilians as human shields and preventing them from leaving, but those reports have not been verified.
“It’s in the interest of Russia and the regime to get as many fighters and people out of Aleppo as possible,” said Jeff White, a military expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former Defense Intelligence Agency officer.
“It would reduce the military problems associated with siege and/or assault. And it would reduce the number of people needing care after taking the city, as well as the number of potential oppositionists remaining.”
The rebels inside eastern Aleppo, however, don’t seem prepared to leave voluntarily.
“The factions completely reject any exit — this is surrender,” Zakaria Malahifji, the political officer of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim, told Reuters.
“When we took up arms at the start of the revolution to defend our abandoned people we promised God that we would not lay them down until the downfall of this criminal regime,” said Al-Farouk Abu Bakr, anAleppo commander in the Islamist opposition group Ahrar al-Sham.
Russia was likely counting on the rebels to reject the deal. Indeed, by proposing it in the first place, Moscow has seemingly positioned itself to say later that it tried to empty the city before razing it, but the rebels did not cooperate.
“The plan alleviates some international pressure and changes the subject from the 50 or so civilians killed in past 24 hours,” Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider.
“It also allows Russia to reset their own forces and acquire new targets to hit once the eight hours expires or whenever they feel like breaking their own ceasefire,” he added.
Russia ended up defeating the separatists at Grozny. But as The New York Times editorial board wrote 16 years ago, it was an “empty victory.”
“Russian forces, using the blunt weapons of World War II, have shelled and bombed the Chechen capital into an uninhabitable hell, a city so devastated that it will most likely be abandoned by the Chechens who long called it home and by the Russians who now cruelly declare that it has been ‘liberated.'”