It’s Time to Talk About the Rebel Blockade of East Aleppo

The rebels are preventing residents from leaving lest the city empties and media loses interest

Eastern Aleppo is under blockade. It is under external blockade by Syrian pro-government forces who encircle it and are preventing the inflow of rebel reinforcements, ammunition and arms, as well as food, medicine and other necessities of life.

The latter aspect of the government blockade is not total. Syrian army and their Russian backers periodically invite aid organizations to deliver supplies to eastern Aleppo and cease military operations to help make that possible. They did as much just last week albeit no food was delivered in the end for reasons beyond their control.

Eastern Aleppo is also under an internal blockade by the Islamists rebels who control it. These are preventing any civilians as well as fighters who might wish to leave it from doing so. This fact is not advertised often but is — particularly since last week — beyond any doubt.

Last Wednesday Russians declared a “humanitarian pause” in Aleppo that would be effective Thursday. Unilaterally Russians and Syrians would cease military activities in Aleppo for 8 hours to allow anyone in eastern Aleppo who wants so to leave. As it was the unilateral cease fire kept being prolonged and ended up lasting three days. (Albeit even with the cease fire “expired” at least the Russian air force hasn’t even flown over the area since.)

Aside from halting the fighting on its end the Russians and Syrians set up — and widely advertised via leaflets — six crossings where civilians wishing to pass into western Aleppo could be received. In addition two corridors for fighters who wish to be bused to the main rebel-held are of Syria to the west of Aleppo were set up.

Russian map of the corridors. White for civilians, yellow for fighters Russian map of the corridors. White for civilians, yellow for fighters

Russian map of the corridors. White for civilians, yellow for fighters

That’s right, the Russian-Assad side wasn’t only inviting civilians to pass to safety but also offering fighters — not to surrender, but to be evacuated with their light arms, to the main rebel-held area and continue their war from there.

Neither was this any kind of trick — the Syrian government has already stuck by its word in similar deals that saw hundreds of rebels evacuated from their untenable mini-pockets in western part of the country around Damascus and transported to the rebel stronghold in Idlib.

It should be noted this approach is unique to the government side. In four years of the war the rebels have never offered encircled Syrian army troops to be evacuated to larger government-held areas. At most they have left captured soldiers go in prisoner exchanges, albeit just as often encircled loyalist soldiers whose positions were overrun would be subject to a public mass execution — to be diligently recorded for use in jihadi propaganda videos.

In Aleppo itself during its darkest days of rebel siege in 2013 Syrian army soldiers were encircled and trapped in the complex of al-Kindi hospital. About 70 loyalist fighters were terribly outgunned and outnumbered but held out for 11 months anyway inflicting 400 killed on the attacking rebels. Their positions were overrun after two 20 ton Nusra Front suicide truck bombs broke through and detonated, partly collapsing the building. Exhausted surviving soldiers were dragged out and shot in the back of the head by al-Qaeda while the rest of the rebels cheered. Three months later al-Nusra released the video of their execution.

Not surprisingly no rebels took the government and the Russians up on their offer of evacuation from Aleppo last week. There are an estimated 5,0008,000 rebel fighters in eastern Aleppo belonging to various groups of different levels of fanaticism. Had one group flirted with accepting the offer it would have doubtlessly came under attack from the others. As long as majority wishes to continue to fight in Aleppo evacuation is not a realistic option for any of the rebels.

Preventing fellow fighters from leaving is one thing but the rebels went further. Theybarricaded off and shelled the crossing points for civilians. Humanitarian aid could flow in and civilians could leave — but they were going to have to do it under a hail of mortar and improvised “hell cannon” fire.

This was confirmed also by mainstream western media, namely the British Channel 4 and besides there is footage of the shelling.

The time has come for all who spend so much time expressing concern for the civilians in battle-torn eastern Aleppo to acknowledge there are in fact two rings around the area. The external Syrian-Russian ring, and the internal ring put up by the rebels. Of the two it is the latter which is less porous and which is doing more to keep the civilians who may wish to leave trapped in a dangerous war zone.

Why the rebels are doing so is perfectly clear. They can not risk eastern Aleppo emptying out. This would mean lower civilian casualties and the waning of media interest. It would mean less fodder for the activists trying to gather momentum for an outside military intervention against the Syrian government.

(Another likely motivation is financial. By not permitting civilians to leave the rebels can extract high bribes for looking the other way. Also if there are no civilians left the market for the super-expensive smuggled food vanishes.)

This then is the perfect acid test for self-professed humanitarians and bleeding hearts in the west. Will they condemn and campaign against the rebel blockade of eastern Aleppo with the same vigor they condemn the government blockade? Or will they continue to overlook one of the two?

Is their concern really for the suffering civilians in eastern Aleppo, or for the prospects of a new American-British regime change war in the Middle East? Do they want the double blockade of eastern Aleppo eased and deconstructed for the sake of civilians, or kept up as a casus belli against Assad?

A version of this article also appeared at Russia Insider