- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Russian officials are threatening to target anyone who refuses to leave the rebel-held eastern Aleppo, after another round of talks between Washington and Moscow failed to materialize on Tuesday.
As Syrian government forces and their allies continue to snatch neighborhoods away from rebels inside the city in bloody street-by-street fighting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that “if somebody refuses to leave Aleppo on good terms, he will be eliminated…there is no other way out.”
Russian and Syrian warplanes have been bombarding the rebel-held half of Aleppo for months, targeting hospitals, aid workers, and civilian apartment blocks for destruction. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, with as many as 250,000 people trapped in the densely-packed city surrounded by government forces, and sharing space with a variety of rebel groups.
Last month, Syrian planes dropped leaflets over the city warning residents to “save yourselves. You know that everyone has left you alone to face your doom and have offered you no help.”
Moscow has long painted all anti-government rebels in Syria with the same brush, and refuses to acknowledge the differences between Islamist groups like the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and more moderate, U.S.- and Turkish-backed rebel units.
“It’s sad that the Western nations, which talk about their concern for human rights and the humanitarian situation in Aleppo and the rest of Syria, are in reality continuing their policy of supporting radicals and extremists,” Lavrov said.
Russia and Syria seem intent on presenting President-elect Donald Trump with a fait accompli in Syria by taking Aleppo, one of the last major cities in rebel hands. On the campaign trail, Trump suggested letting Russia take the lead against Islamic State, later even offering to cooperate with Moscow to battle the terrorist group in Syria. That would mean abandoning the moderate rebels battling the regime of Bashar al Assad as well as the civilian population in areas targeted by Russian and Syrian attacks.
One U.S. defense official, who spoke to FP on the condition of anonymity, said that Russian planes have been conducting daily sorties over Aleppo for weeks, and have also regularly bombed the Turkish- and U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army forces who are pushing toward the Islamic State stronghold of al Bab.
On Monday, Russia and China vetoed for the sixth time a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a seven-day ceasefire in Aleppo to allow humanitarian aid to move into the starving city, and to create more space for more talks on negotiating a withdrawal of rebel forces.
Also on Monday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that American diplomats are still open to working with the Russians, but it is hard to reach agreement. Russia, he said, is “very concerned” about the presence of the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in Aleppo, while Washington is concerned about the daily bombardment of the civilian population of the city, along with the “moderate Syrian opposition that should not and does not deserve to be bombed into submission.”
The sparring between Russia and the United States over who is fighting terrorists — and which terrorists need to be fought — is hardly limited to Syria.
On Friday, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, told reporters at the Pentagon that Russia has lent legitimacy to the Taliban. Moscow’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, recently revealed that his government “have contacts with the Taliban,” and is working on a cease-fire. “The Taliban are fighting in Afghanistan against the people we fought in Syria, that’s why our interests coincide,” he said, referring to ISIS.
Nicholson blasted the outreach, saying, “this public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents. So, it’s not helpful.”
Photo Credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images