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James Denselow

What's next for Aleppo?

MSF have warned that there are only four paediatricians left in Aleppo [AFP]

Date of publication: 9 November, 2016

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Comment: While international attention is directed away from Syria and towards the battle for Mosul in Iraq, James Denselow weighs up the likely scenarios for Aleppo's beleaguered residents.

With the battle for Mosul reaching a crescendo, the beleaguered city of Aleppo has fallen out of the headlines over recent weeks.

Yet over 120 days have passed since the east of the city last had access to outside aid, and with Russia issuing warnings to leave the city, focus could again fall on the future of what was once Syria's economic capital.

Four likely scenarios face the city in the near future.

A full scale assault backed up by Russian naval power, the potential for a longer term siege, a successful opposition counteroffensive and reopening the east of the city, or finally a diplomatic breakthrough engineered by Washington, Moscow or others.

Despite the drumbeat of Russian sea power making its way towards the Syrian coast, the second scenario is most likely to materialise although we all predict the future of the conflict at our peril.

Certainly the Russians would prefer that the threat of a major new offensive could prompt an opposition exodus from the city. Over the past weeks a number of so called "humanitarian pauses" have supposedly given the chance for people to leave, but with trust unsurprisingly at a minimum, and UN agencies calling for a longer period for moving people, nothing practical has actually taken place.

This is of course particularly bad news for those civilians who need to leave the besieged parts of the city for medical treatment. MSF have warned that there are only four paediatricians left and some 1,500 child patients who currently require specialised medical care not available there.

A reminder if needed, of how hard it is to ascertain truth in the thick fog of war that swirls around the conflict

The "pauses" instead have allowed the Russians to reinforce their narrative that civilians are being held hostage in the city by extremists groups - potentially for use as human shields - and that the scenario is in fact very similar to that which the US-supported Iraqi forces are dealing with in Mosul.

That said, with the Mosul operation ongoing, the Russians would be unlikely to flatten eastern Aleppo if the Iraqi operation is conducted in a more precise manner that treats civilian protection as a priority.

Nevertheless Russian claims about a sustained halt to air strikes on the city are contradicted by reports and footage on the ground, a reminder if needed of how hard it is to ascertain truth in the thick fog of war that swirls around the conflict.

Meanwhile, an opposition counteroffensive has made small gains but has not yet shown sign of opening up the east, let alone in a manner sustainable and safe enough for the movement of people and goods in and out. 

Russia claims to have blunted the offensive but coordinated car bombs and seemingly indiscriminate fire into the west of the city has led to reports of the regime having to reinforce its presence there, further delaying any potential for a large scale operation against the eastern areas.

The manner and nature of siege lacks the visuals and drama of a live military operation but it can still be deadly

In diplomatic terms the breakdown of US-Russian relations into a increasingly bitter war of words suggests that it is unlikely that a joint push for a ceasefire of a better management of the conflict is likely at this time.

Speaking at Chatham House at the start of the month John Kerry expressed his frustration regarding the inability to make progress, but promised to be working on it right until the new administration in Washington comes in.

Some have speculated that the Russians want to see Aleppo won before Trump takes up the White House, but despite a likelihood of renewed US engagement in the Middle East there is no sign yet, that a plan is ready to go that would change the balance of power on the ground in the short term.

Thus we are left with the grinding reality of continued siege tactics, actions that may weaken the mind, body and souls of those contained within the confines of battered city.

Sieges have proven successful for the regime in recent months, allowing them to manage the capture of areas without having to resort to the attrition of urban street by street fighting.

The manner and nature of siege lacks the visuals and drama of a live military operation but it can still be deadly. Once people have run out of food and medicine, the consequences are horribly predictable, and as the world marches on, the people of Aleppo wait to see what happens next. 



James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

 

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