The Cable

UN Nears Deal on Humanitarian Pause in Aleppo — But What Comes Next?

The United Nations said Thursday diplomats are working overtime to secure a humanitarian pause in the bloody fighting occurring in the Syrian city of Aleppo, and that a deal could emerge in the coming “days.”

ALEPPO, SYRIA - AUGUST 4: Smoke rises as Syrian opponents burn tires to block the ground visibility of the war crafts belonging to the Russian Army and Assad regime forces at an opposition controlled neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria on August 4, 2016.  (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - AUGUST 4: Smoke rises as Syrian opponents burn tires to block the ground visibility of the war crafts belonging to the Russian Army and Assad regime forces at an opposition controlled neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria on August 4, 2016. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The United Nations said Thursday diplomats are working overtime to secure a humanitarian pause in the bloody fighting occurring in the Syrian city of Aleppo, and that a deal could emerge in the coming “days.”

The world body has said that nearly 250,000 civilians are under siege in eastern Aleppo as rebels who control the area fend off Syrian, Russian, and Iranian-backed forces.

“We are in intensive discussions with the Russian Federation and the government of Syria to ensure that the civilian population in Aleppo is protected,” U.N. Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy told journalists in Geneva.

Experts said any breakthrough in the talks may be due to a cold calculation on the part of Moscow that if civilians are evacuated from the area, pro-Assad forces can ramp up their bombing campaign in Aleppo and takeover the entire city — a strategic stronghold of the opposition.

“Assad would prefer for the rebels to leave and the Syrian army to occupy east Aleppo. But if the rebels will not leave and prefer to fight on, he will want the people out so he can bomb the city at will without lots of civilian casualties,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.

When asked if the U.S. believed that this was Moscow’s intention, a senior State Department official said, “It’s hard to know what their ultimate goal is.”

The official said the U.S. continues to be skeptical of Russia’s proposal last week to open three humanitarian corridors to allow civilians and rebels who drop their weapons to leave the area, and for deliveries of first aid and food.

“There [doesn’t] need to be corridors. The U.N. should have full humanitarian access to all parts of Syria,” said the official. “For them to create this grand gesture of opening humanitarian corridors is in and of itself a contradiction to what they’ve already agreed to.”

The official conceded that the plan could be to retake Aleppo, but he stressed that such a victory would be fleeting. “Aleppo is a key city, I get it, but this thing ain’t gonna end if Aleppo is retaken.”

A European diplomat, meanwhile, noted that the bombing of Aleppo isn’t just a humanitarian crisis, but a counterterrorism fiasco as well. “Russia’s decision to besiege the city risks supercharging extremists, who are currently still in the minority among the Syrian opposition,” he said.

At the moment, the U.S. and Russia are in intensive discussions to prop up a deteriorated nationwide ceasefire that “would unlock the entire solution,” said Ramzy.

It’s unclear exactly where Moscow’s plan and the UN’s plan differs, but U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said Thursday the Russian proposal is more limited, whereas the U.N. plan is much more comprehensive and would provide aid to the 250,000 civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo.

“We are ready to go as soon as we have the pause, and we have a two-way corridor with supplies going into the people in eastern Aleppo, but also western Aleppo, which has now become much more exposed to problems, and which has enormous access problems as well,” he told reporters in Geneva.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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