Late last week the US and Russia agreed to extend a piecemeal ceasefire covering parts of Syria to Aleppo, the focal point of most of the recent fighting between Bashar al-Assad’s army and the Syrian rebels. This apparently came, at least initially, as news to the people who are actually doing the fighting, though, because Assad’s air force and rebel artillery kept striking the city (government airstrikes also hit a camp for displaced Syrians a short distance west of Aleppo), and the rebels managed to take the village of Khan Touman, a short distance southwest of Aleppo, from Assad on Friday. Khan Touman sits near the Damascus-Aleppo highway, so it’s sitting on a pretty important piece of real estate as Assad continues to set up his forces to besiege Aleppo. That’s probably why high-ranking officers in Iran’s Quds Force are dying in the effort to retake it.
The good news is that yesterday the Aleppo ceasefire was extended through tomorrow, and there’s now talk of replacing these localized ceasefires with a nation-wide version, in an effort being discussed at a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” in Paris. The bad news is that the “Friends of Syria” is an international body of foreign ministers that doesn’t actually include any Syrians, and the track record for these ceasefires that are being negotiated without any Syrian input seems spotty at best. And even if this ceasefire actually works, that doesn’t preclude Assad from moving his forces into position to begin besieging Aleppo whenever the fighting resumes. The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog compared the likely siege to the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia, and considering that the Siege of Sarajevo is still one of the most horrific military events in the post-Cold War era, that comparison isn’t a good thing.
Outside Aleppo, the humanitarian situation in besieged Deir Ezzor is now reportedly looking like Madaya looked a few weeks ago. It sounds extraordinarily perilous for the estimated 200,000-400,000 people living in and around the city:
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Hamad revealed that “between February 2015 and March 2016, the death toll reached 63, including 14 women and 25 children, due to IS shelling of regime-controlled neighborhoods.” What’s more, JFL correspondents reported 32 civilians in the besieged neighborhoods died due to malnutrition and the spread of diseases.
“In the besieged neighborhoods, only Assad’s government hospital is operating, but it lacks medical professionals. There is the military hospital, but it is reserved for the military,” Hamad said.
In the absence of food and income, many civilians in Deir ez-Zor have cut back to only one meal a day, and that meal contains only half the usual amount of food. The deteriorating living situation has prompted residents to use grass and wild plants in their food, according to the World Food Program organization. The situation has become dire, much like Madaya earlier this year.
Deir Ezzor is besieged by ISIS, which is outside any negotiating framework, and so the chances of getting any large-scale humanitarian aid into the city are slim unless the siege is lifted. The UN has been airdropping aid into the city, but airdrops aren’t going to be enough to stave off eventual starvation.
Also worth noting: al-Qaeda
Grand Wizard leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has reportedly ordered (or maybe just approved a plan for) Jabhat al-Nusra to form an “emirate” in Syria. This would give al-Qaeda a “state” to compete with ISIS, but it comes with risks attached. For one thing, there are rebel groups fighting alongside Nusra now that may not take too kindly to the sudden declaration of a Nusra political entity in their midst. For another thing, there may be–actually we know there are–Syrians living in places that would likely be part of this new Nusra polity who don’t want anything to do with Nusra. So Nusra would likely have to crack down on some serious unrest if it took this step, which would make it harder to maintain a unified anti-Assad front. Nusra’s slow-burn strategy of integrating itself into rebel and local civilian networks and putting the most pleasant possible face on its grotesque ideology has been really, really successful thus far, but declaring its own state would necessitate ending that strategy.